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WhatsApp has 400 million users in India, but no fix for its fake news problem

Shubham Agarwal
An Indian newspaper vendor reading a newspaper with a full back page advertisement from WhatsApp intended to counter fake information, in New Delhi on July 10, 2018. Prakash Singh / Getty Images

WhatsApp is struggling to stem the tide of fake news in India, its biggest market. In the last few years, its platform has been inundated with an around-the-clock avalanche of misinformation — misleading mobs into lynching innocents and enabling partisans to abuse its far-reaching presence for political gain.

“There are factories of fake news and misinformation that are running in the country — almost like a business where skilled content creators are hired and used for manufacturing misinformation,” said Osama Manzar, founder and director of the Digital Empowerment Foundation, India.

But that hasn’t thrown a wrench into the Facebook-owned company’s meteoric growth. At a July press conference held by WhatsApp, the CEO of the Indian government’s policy think tank, NITI Aayog, revealed that WhatsApp now has 400 million users in India — larger than the entire population of the United States and up from 200 million the last time the company announced such a metric in 2017. Statistically, four out of every five smartphone users in the country are on WhatsApp.

At the same time, the app has been a haven for fake news. Rumors and misinformation that spread quickly through the app led to a series of lynchings that left dozens dead. Without quality control and fact-checking, the problem could get worse as more Indians get online. The fake news problem has even begun to spread to the United States: misinformation was rampant on private messaging apps in the wake of the El Paso and Dayton mass shootings.

WhatsApp plans to capitalize on its ascendancy with a slew of new major features in the coming months. But while the company has made impressive headway with its app, WhatsApp needs to take a step back and reassess its priorities, especially in emerging countries like India.

WhatsApp: The internet’s second home in India

WhatsApp dominates India’s digital channels of communication. It’s woven so deeply into the country’s cultural fabric that it has evolved beyond being just an instant messaging service. It’s an e-commerce platform as well as a customer outreach tool for small businesses, the primary means of news for many, a social network, a source of entertainment, and more. For first-time internet users in the country’s remote regions — where connected handsets are dubbed “WhatsApp phones” — it is the internet.

As it struggles to curtail the rampant fake news tainting its platform, being in such an influential position hasn’t helped WhatsApp. On top of that, unlike Facebook or Twitter, it’s crucial to remember WhatsApp is an instant messaging service. Since all messages on it are end-to-end encrypted, it’s technically impossible to narrow down viral forwards to one source. To make messages traceable, a feature that the Indian government has been hounding WhatsApp for, it will have to give up its tightly packed security measures.

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On his latest visit to India in July, WhatsApp global head Will Cathcart assured the Indian government of “prompt action” over the traceability of messages. However, back in January WhatsApp had called the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology’s proposed IT Rules — which required tech companies to hand over encrypted messages — “over-broad” and “not possible.”

Shakuntala Banaji, an Associate Professor at the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics, told Digital Trends that political and propagandistic groups have been quick to take advantage of WhatsApp’s soaring influence, which gives them a megaphone.

“While WhatsApp by itself has not fundamentally altered existing social tendencies, it has made it easier for groups to mobilize, communicate, expand and act – often violently, faster and in larger numbers, than was possible earlier,” said Banaji, who is also co-authoring a WhatsApp-sponsored study titled “WhatsApp Vigilantes.”

What WhatsApp’s done so far

Over the past few months, WhatsApp has gone to lengths to come up with a solution that doesn’t involve hampering its end-to-end encrypted structure. It has begun to mark messages which are being aggressively circulated as “Frequently Forwarded.” It has put a restraint on how many people a message can be forwarded to, organized roadside skits to spread awareness on the consequences of forwarding unverified messages, ran a nationwide ad-campaign asking users to “Spread joy, not rumors,” made it possible for users to report groups, and more.

WhatsApp has also been actively banning accounts (over 2 million each month). Its machine learning frameworks are built to detect profiles that sent out an abnormally high volume of messages immediately after signing up. In addition, the messaging giant has commissioned several research initiatives, grants, workshops, and digital literacy programs.

But none of these actions have brought the fundamental revamp needed to combat WhatsApp’s misinformation plague. What’s more, recent events have suggested WhatsApp has largely overlooked and underestimated the impact its messaging app has had in the country.

Weeks before India’s 2019 general election — which was expected to be the most onerous challenge for WhatsApp and other social media platforms — the company announced that it would be launching a fake news tipline.

Media promotions suggested that anyone could ping this channel to report and verify false claims making the rounds. Except it was an experiment for research purposes and not a “tipline” at all. Apart from this, WhatsApp barely made any significant advancements to prepare itself for India’s elections where nearly 900 million people were forecasted to vote.

“WhatsApp has failed to look at issues that are happening in countries like Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar where people do not have the maturity in terms of digital education, digital literacy, digital empowerment,” said Pratik Sinha, who runs Indian fact-checking platform Alt News and described the tipline as a PR effort.

“First of all, it was too late and there was nothing,” he said. “It was known that the 2019 elections will feature misinformation from all sides. But what was done by WhatsApp to do anything about it?”

We sent WhatsApp a detailed set of questions for this story. The company declined to comment.

Who wins when WhatsApp fails?

The democratization of smartphones and mobile data has enabled anyone to effortlessly circumvent the handful of updates WhatsApp has rolled out to curb the spread of fake news. Several reports have found how political parties bypassed WhatsApp’s new forward limits and pushed propaganda by hiring or setting up dedicated IT cells.

The massive spread of fake news and misinformation is caused by political parties and their allies for political and electoral gains almost at the level of industrial scale of manufacturing misinformation, according to the Digital Empowerment Foundation’s Manzar. WhatsApp has partnered with his organization to train community leaders on tackling fake news in India.

These methods have grown so common and run unabated for years due to the fact that there’s zero accountability on WhatsApp. Alt News’ Sinha says the company is partly to blame because it has been slow to act effectively on the issue. He pointed to a series of lynchings in 2017 and 2018 that were prompted by the spread of fake news on WhatsApp. The lynchings left 46 people dead and 43 others injured.

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“WhatsApp has not been able to control this and the political misinformation continues unabated. The measures that they took last year or putting in a forwarded tag or limiting people to 5 forwards have not had any visible effect,” he said. “So while nobody can deny them their success but as being part of Facebook with an unlimited amount of resources, they have completely failed to address the social issues that are arising because of WhatsApp.”

At its core, however, India’s misinformation troubles are driven by the absence of awareness among most of its users. Often, users are not familiar with how message chains function on WhatsApp and how, by forwarding an unverified claim, they’re contributing to the fake news wildfire. Political groups leverage this behavior to sway communities and fuel personal biases.

WhatsApp India’s next chapter

These problems are about to get worse as WhatsApp expands to India’s lower-tier internet users where digital literacy is just about non-existent. A couple of weeks ago, the messaging app was made available on KaiOS-powered JioPhone, the country’s most popular feature phone. In addition, studies reveal the number of internet users in India will reach 627 million in 2019 and the growth will be primarily led by the rapid adoption in rural sectors.

Ramnath Bhat, a Ph.D. Researcher at the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and the co-author of “WhatsApp Vigilantes,” told Digital Trends that the top priority is to fight the “deadly consequences of disinformation in India.”

“To do this, it is also necessary to address the social and political contexts within which WhatsApp is being used in India,” he said. “To put it simply, users don’t forward disinformation only because they assume that it is an original or forwarded message. Many users, for example, forward disinformation because they want to or already believe the ideological and political content and/or bias of the message.”

WhatsApp has an eventful year coming up. After a year-long pilot, it will officially enter India’s burgeoning digital payments space with more active users than any of its fellow competitors. Plus Facebook is expected to bring advertisements to WhatsApp Status in possibly the first of many monetization moves.

Before that, WhatsApp has a thorny path ahead. The messaging app has a lot to take care of to ensure the constant shadow of fake news doesn’t loom over its future endeavors.

“They can have multiple priorities. If their priority is to make money via digital payments, their priority should also be that the social fabric of the country is not completely destroyed because of misinformation being circulated on their platform,” said Sinha.

Fake news will always represent an ever-shifting goal post for social media services. More importantly, it’s not solely a WhatsApp flaw. Only when the government, community, people, and platforms together tackle misinformation through technological as well as societal solutions, will its effects be minimized and hopefully reach a harmless state. When will that happen remains to be seen.