With the privacy argument falling flat in the face of extreme pressure from the government which wants to trace the source of fake news, the world’s biggest chat messenger, WhatsApp, is trying to find a middle ground to its demands.
From training people to spot fake news to running advertisement campaigns creating awareness about the effects of misinformation, Facebook’s chat app, which has over a billion users globally, is trying every way possible to ensure the flow of fake news and messages goes down in the run-up to the 2019 general elections.
The last couple of months have been tough on WhatsApp, which has been at loggerheads with the government on the issue of fake forwards. The government has time and again alleged that the chat app is now being used to run misinformation campaigns which it believes is causing major law and order problems as well as pose a threat to national security.
To quell the government’s fears, WhatsApp has partnered Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) to create awareness about the need to verify information. In the run-up to the upcoming Assembly and general elections, the DEF will hold 40 training sessions for community leaders in 10 states across the country where there have been cases of violence, primarily triggered by WhatsApp messages.
The DEF will educate government officials, administration representatives as well as civil society organisations. In addition, the DEF will incorporate this new training as part of its network of over 30,000 community members in seven states.
“Our goal is to help keep people safe by creating greater awareness about fake news and empowering users to help limit its spread,” says Ben Supple, public policy manager at WhatsApp. The chat app has also initiated a radio campaign this week to create awareness about misinformation circulated via the platform.
Sources believe that the stand-off between WhatsApp and the government will not end any time soon. The government is in no mood to buy the privacy and security argument given by WhatsApp, whereas the American company says traceability will undermine end-to-end encryption and the private nature of the app, creating potential for serious abuse.
The company has reiterated its position to the government after the meeting between Information Technology (IT) Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and WhatsApp Chief Executive Officer Chris Daniels. Officials in the IT ministry said WhatsApp needs to agree to the demands; else it might face a ban in the country where it has more than 200 million users.
“Banning of WhatsApp will be the last resort if the chat messenger and other platforms like Telegram remain stubborn.
We are not ruling out that option. But it will be like capital punishment, which we don’t intend to take,” a senior official in the IT ministry said.
Over the past few years, governments of countries, including the US, the UK, and Australia, have called for information from WhatsApp for cases related to national security and terrorism. Last year, the UK government had also asked WhatsApp to come out with a technical solution to enable Intelligence agencies to access end-to-end encrypted WhatsApp messages.
Its payments platform, WhatsApp Pay, which pushes unified payments interface-based transactions via the chat messenger, has also been at loggerheads with fintech experts who allege it is flouting the National Payments Corporation of India guidelines.
It is all geared to set up a base of operations in India and is in the process of finalising a chief of operations as well as its headquarters, one of the major demands of the government, if it plans to run fintech operations in India. The company is, however, keeping quiet on the Reserve Bank of India’s orders to store financial data onshore in local data centres.
It is also planning to set up a 100-150-member strong team and is in the final stages of selecting a head of operations for the chat messenger. At present, WhatsApp runs all its operations from its base in Singapore. “To support our users in India and to continue our investment in the country, it’s our top priority to hire a local leader who can help us build a team on the ground,” said a WhatsApp spokesperson.