With Rise of Rumour-Triggered Lynchings, Centre Tells WhatsApp to Act

The home ministry is scheduling a meeting with social media platforms to discuss how the spreading of false information can be avoided.

New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government on Tuesday directed WhatsApp to immediately take steps to prevent the spread of “irresponsible and explosive messages”, saying the social media platform cannot evade responsibility. This  directive has come after a recent spate of lynching cases purportedly triggered by posts and rumours circulated on messaging apps.

WhatsApp has also been asked to immediately contain the spread of such messages through application of technology, even as law and order machinery takes steps to apprehend the culprits.

Noting that miscreants were repeatedly circulating provocative messages and triggering a spate of violence, the government said it has “conveyed in no uncertain terms that WhatsApp must take immediate action to end this menace and ensure that their platform is not used for such malafide activities”.

Conveying its disapproval to the top brass of WhatsApp, the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MEITY) stated that the Facebook-owned company “cannot evade accountability and responsibility”, according to the official statement.

When contacted, a WhatsApp spokesperson told PTI, “WhatsApp cares deeply about people’s safety and their ability to freely communicate”.

“We don’t want our services used to spread harmful misinformation and believe this is a challenge that companies and societies should address. For example, we recently made a number of updates to our group chats and will be stepping up efforts to help people spot false news and hoaxes,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

India is the largest market for WhatsApp, with over 200 million users.

In a separate statement on Tuesday, WhatsApp said it would be instituting awards for research on the spread of misinformation on its platform.

Officials also said that the government is planning to take the help of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp to check the circulation of false information and fake videos about “child-lifters” that have led to incidents of violence, including lynching of over a dozen people. Representatives of the social media platforms will be called for a meeting to be convened by the home ministry.

The recent lynching of people on the suspicion that they were child-lifters had alarmed everyone and the issue would be discussed at the meeting, a home ministry official said.

The decision to call the representatives of social media platforms was taken at an inter-ministerial meeting on June 16, chaired by home secretary Rajiv Gauba, where the issue of circulation of false information and fake videos was discussed in detail. The meeting had also taken stock of terrorist organisations using social media and discussed ways to prevent them, along with the circulation of pornographic materials, the official said.

The date of the meeting with the social media representatives is yet to be fixed, another official said, adding that it was expected to be held soon.

Last week, five people were lynched in Dhule district in Maharashtra on the suspicion of them being part of of a gang of child-lifters. In a similar incident in Tripura recently, two people were lynched and six others thrashed. Assam, too, witnessed a case of lynching last month on similar grounds.

Terming the “unfortunate killings” in states like Assam, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tripura and West Bengal as “deeply painful and regrettable”, the ministry in its statement said the abuse of platforms like WhatsApp “for repeated circulation of such provocative content” is a matter of deep concern.

“MEITY has taken serious note of these irresponsible messages and their circulation in such platforms. Deep disapproval of such developments has been conveyed to the senior management of the WhatsApp and they have been advised that necessary remedial measures should be taken to prevent proliferation of these fake and at times motivated/ sensational messages,” the statement said.

(With PTI inputs)