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WhatsApp: A conduit for misinformation and mass hysteria

The election year, 2019, will bring a fair opportunity for miscreants to spread fake news and unsurprisingly, disinformation campaigns during elections are not new to Indian politics.

Devdiscourse News Desk Renu Mehta Last Updated at 11 Aug 2018, 16:08 IST India
WhatsApp: A conduit for misinformation and mass hysteria
  • World’s most popular cross-platform messaging app WhatsApp is slowly turning into a big market of misinformation in India, further leading to mob lynching, communal violence, and other abuses. (Image Credit: Twitter)

"A lie told often enough becomes the truth"

This quote by Vladimir Lenin is quite apt with the present situation in India. Repetition is what makes fake news appear real and authentic.

World's most popular cross-platform messaging app WhatsApp is slowly turning into a big market of misinformation in India, further leading to mob lynching, communal violence, and other abuses. With more than 200 million users, India is WhatsApp's biggest market in the world, where people forward more messages, photos, and videos than any other country in the world.

Violence triggered by incendiary fake messages in India including the one where a WhatsApp video wrongly identifying Hyderabad techie Mohammad Azam Usmansab as a child lifter led to his lynching near Bidar on July 13. The man was later identified as a call center employee by the police.

Furthermore, five men were lynched on the suspicion of being child lifters in Maharashtra's Rainpada village of Dhule district. More recently, a man was beaten to death, while three others were injured after a mob attacked them suspecting them to be child-lifters, near Bidar in Karnataka.

Adding latest to the misinformation series comes the viral rumor where a WhatsApp message alerts the users to avoid scanning thumb on any greeting message asking to do so for viewing the message. The message goes as:

"To all my friends, be careful of some msgs in WhatsApp that asks you to put your thumb in a screen to unlock a msg like happy Independence day or happy new year... Beware of these msgs and don't put your thumb anywhere. Scanning your thumb impression will give the app owners access to your biometric data, this is very serious as your Aadhar biometric is linked to PAN, banks etc. be very careful and spread the message !! cybercrime on the rise now.#TRAI"

(Image Credit: Twitter)

There are multiple instances where a large number of irresponsible and explosive messages filled with rumors and provocation circulated via the messaging platform has incited violence in India.

Recently, researchers at Check Point Software Technologies Ltd, an Israeli cybersecurity firm said that they had found a flaw in WhatsApp that allows a threat actor to intercept and manipulate messages sent by those in a group or private conversation. According to the firm, attackers can not only steer potential evidence in their favor but also create and spread misinformation.

Unlike other social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram that dig deep into user's privacy, WhatsApp was designed as a simple, secure and reliable private messaging platform but false news and videos being circulated over the platform is slowly turning it into a powerful tool for attackers and miscreants for creating mass hysteria and stirring up violence in the country.

Election 2019: Another great opportunity to disseminate misinformation

The election year, 2019, will bring a fair opportunity for miscreants to spread fake news and unsurprisingly, disinformation campaigns during elections are not new to Indian politics. Indian political parties have been using WhatsApp as a primary campaigning tool, taking, for instance, the15th Karnataka Legislative Assembly elections, seen as a preview of India's national elections next year, held in May where the two leading political parties have claimed to create over 50,000 WhatsApp groups for micro-targeting the voters.

A recent study by the Oxford University researchers found evidence of formally organized social media manipulation campaigns in 48 countries, (including India), up from 28 countries last year. Much of this growth comes from countries where political parties are spreading disinformation during elections, or countries where government agencies feel threatened by junk news and foreign interference and are responding by developing their own computational propaganda campaigns in response, the report said.

The study entitled 'Challenging Truth and Trust: A Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation' found evidence of disinformation campaigns operating over chat applications such as WhatsApp, Telegram, and WeChat, in a fifth of these 48 countries surveyed, mostly across the Global South.

(Image Credit: Pixabay)

The growing usage and popularity of the chat applications have turned it into an abusive platform and a significant concern for governments around the world. The ease and convenience, ubiquity and prominence of WhatsApp have placed high amounts of trust in it. Lack of digital literacy and awareness among the Indian users, especially among the rural population are two key factors that majorly contribute to the circulation of fake messages and videos, without questioning its authenticity.

Initiatives so far

Since messages in WhatsApp are end-to-end encrypted so it becomes extremely difficult for the fact checkers to monitor when and where fake contents are being disseminated.

The rising incidents of violence triggered due to misinformation on its platform and a stern warning issued by the Indian government asking it to take immediate measures to prevent the spread of "irresponsible and explosive messages, has prompted WhatsApp to take initiatives to curb fake news circulation. As part of the efforts, WhatsApp recently rolled out new features that limit its Indian users to forward a message to only five chats at a time. If the user exceeds the limit a pop-up message will appear on the screen alerting users that 'you can only share with up to five chats'. Earlier, WhatsApp also introduced the 'Forwarded message label' that indicates that the particular message has been forwarded to the user. This feature will help the user to determine if the message has been originally written by his friend or relative, or if it came from some other source.

(Image Credit: WhatsApp)

Additionally, WhatsApp has listed out other measures including digital literacy, product control, fact-checking advocacy and proactive actions to tackle abuse on its platform. WhatsApp and the Election Commission of India are also teaming up to curb misinformation and fake news ahead of the 2019 General Elections in India.

How can we fix this?

WhatsApp alone can't fight against the epidemic of misinformation and falsehood. Considering the severity of the problem, the following points need to be taken into account-

  • Promoting digital literacy programmes and awareness campaigns will lessen the chances of circulating misinformation and fake news, more specifically among the new and unaware users.
  • 'Verify before you share'. Check the facts and verify the authenticity of the news before hitting the FORWARD or SHARE button. For instance, Google image search can be used to check pictures to see if it has been used elsewhere.
  • News organizations should focus on building trust and attract maximum audiences to lessen the share of users that rely on social platforms for news and information.
  • Introducing a strong legislation to apprehend the culprits and curb the epidemic of misinformation.
  • False news, misinformation, and spread of hoaxes need the collective efforts of government, policy-makers and civil society to fight the menace.
  • Investing in technological tools and research that identify fake news and improve online accountability.
  • Last but not the least; make sure that you aren't contributing to it!

"Remember you are responsible for everything you share"

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