Horrified by Terrible Acts of Violence, Must Work Together: WhatsApp Tells Modi Government

WhatsApp says new controls for administrators, a 'label' to make people wary of forwarded messages and funding awareness campaigns will help India cut down on misinformation and fake news.

New Delhi: After being rapped by the Indian government over how its platform was being used to spread provocative and fake content, WhatsApp has replied to the information technology ministry, saying that it believes misinformation is a challenge “that requires government, civil society and technology companies to work together”.

In the past few months, a string of mob lynching incidents, allegedly prompted by rumours sent over WhatsApp, has turned the Centre’s attention to the issue of fake news and misinformation on the digital platform.

“Like the government of India, we’re horrified by these terrible acts of violence and wanted to respond quickly to the very important issues you have raised,” the company has said in a letter to the information technology ministry.

The Wire has reviewed a copy of this letter.

The instant messaging application has listed out a two-fold strategy the first of which involves giving Indians the “controls and information they need to stay safe”. Secondly it plans on working “proactively to prevent misuse on WhatsApp”.

On the technology side of the things, the company has listed out three recent changes it has made to its messaging service, including new controls for an administrator of a group, ‘forward labels’ and funding towards academic research on misinformation and fake news.

The letter notes:

In Mid-May, we added new protections to prevent people from adding others back into groups which they had left – a form of misuse we think it is important to correct. And last week, we launched a new setting that enables administrators to decide who gets to send messages within individual groups. This will help reduce the spread of unwanted messages into important group conversations – as well as the forwarding of hoaxes and other content.

In addition, we have been testing a new label in India that highlights when a message has been forwarded versus composed by the sender. This could serve as an important signal for recipients to think twice before forwarding messages because it lets a user know if content they received was written by the person they know or a potential rumor from someone else. We plan to launch this new feature soon.

Finally, just yesterday we announced a new project to work with leading academic experts in India to learn more about the spread of misinformation, which will help inform additional product improvements going forward – as well as help our efforts to block bad actors (see below) going forward.

Fact checking

On the issue of educating Indians on how to stay safe online, WhatsApp has promised the IT ministry that it plans on running “long-term public safety ad campaigns in India” and “news literacy workshops”.

“Already in India, the fact checking organization Boom Live is available on WhatsApp and has published numerous important reports on the source of the rumors that have contributed to the recent violence,” the letter notes.

“This kind of work gives everyone a better understanding of the problematic fake news circulating on WhatsApp, and how it relates to misinformation being shared on other platforms. In addition, it’s a helpful resource right within WhatsApp where people can get answers about content they’ve been sent. It’s why we’re looking at how best to ramp up these efforts in India going forward,” it added.

Still private

The company also points out that its ability to intervene heavily is limited because of the nature of the service’s end-to-end encryption. Also, the company insists that while WhatsApp messages can be “highly viral”, most Indians don’t use it to forward messages.

“Many people (nearly 25 percent in India) are not in a group; the majority of groups continue to be small (less than ten people); and nine in ten messages are still sent from just one person to another,” the letter states.