Faced with mob violence stemming from the spread of ‘hoaxes’ on the messaging and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) platform WhatsApp, the government of India is addressing a serious question: how can these fake rumours be stopped? GoI has issued repeated warnings to WhatsApp over the months to control the “rampant circulation of irresponsible messages in large volumes” on its platform. 

These issues were reportedly addressed by WhatsApp CEO Chris Daniels, who is on a five-day visit to India, and Union minister of law & justice and electronics and information technology Ravi Shankar Prasad when they met on Tuesday. Prasad reportedly reiterated India’s demands that Whats-App adhere to Indian laws, appoint a grievances officer in the country, and open a corporate office in India. He also asked the company to work on a “technological solution to trace the origin of fake messages”. 

There are several ways to limit the spread and influence of false information. 

But proposals to have WhatsApp police private communications, or even ban the app entirely, is not going to solve the problem in the long term. Instead, it could reduce Indian digital user welfare. 

In response to the violence emanating from ‘fake news’ circulated on Whats-App, and the understandable demands made by the Indian government, Whats-App announced last month that it was removing the ‘quick forward’ button from the app, which makes forwarding messages easier. It also now labels ‘forwarded’ messages, and limits Indian users’ ability to forward messages, photos or videos to only five groups at once, instead of the earlier 20. 

These actions will likely slow the spread of the hoaxes, but they will not stop it. Users can still forward messages to an audience of 1,280 people at a time, as one group can consist of 256 members.

The only option to completely stop the spread of hoaxes on WhatsApp is to shut it down. But doing so would limit the ability of millions of bona fide users to use the application. On top of that, the move would possibly be ineffective. 

Users could turn to other applications to spread hoaxes. Similar rumours have spread as chain messages in, for instance, Myanmar through Facebook Messenger. 

India could ban Facebook Messenger as well (Facebook owns WhatsApp). But other messaging apps, including encrypted ones, exist and will probably be used. Serious as the reason to pull down WhatsApp and similar messaging platforms may be, banning these apps disregards the legitimate and beneficial ways Indians use them. 

With nearly 200 million monthly users, one in three Indian users have even run out of space on their phone daily because they used the app so much. India is WhatsApp’s biggest market where, according to the company, users forward more messages, photos and videos than in any other country. Whats-App is particularly important for rural users, as it helps them cheaply connect to family members far away, send pictures of their products to clients across India, and receive election campaign messages.

The only way India can require communication platforms to police content is if the country first imposes a blanket ban on apps that use end-to-end encryption.
 
This, however, would weaken consumer privacy and cybersecurity. WhatsApp can only read and police the messages of users if it stops encrypting their messages. In this scenario, India could fine organisations that do not stop the spread of false messages, similar to how Germany penalises platforms for not removing fake news

However, besides reducing cybersecurity, it is not only difficult for any company to determine what is true or false, but it can also be time-consuming, not to mention costly. Startups, in particular, lack the resources of their larger competitors, which may lead to reduced competition. 

A better and more effective approach to limit the influence of hoaxes on WhatsApp and other platforms is to increase media literacy. WhatsApp has taken early steps in this direction. It recently took out full-page ads in Indian newspapers providing tips to identify misinformation. This is clearly not enough. 

It is also working with local researchers to combat the spread of hoaxes. Additionally, GoI could partner with local news groups to further educate citizens on how to identify real news from fake news. Facebook spent $14 million in 2017 on such a project in the US. Finally, GoI needs to do a better job enforcing its own laws and prosecuting the individuals carrying out attacks. 

If it wants to restrict the influence such rumours — and protect people — it needs to help its citizens discern between real news and hoaxes and prosecute violent actors. If accomplished, such progress would not only help users become safer, more responsible citizens, but it would also increase the overall digital literacy in India. 

(The writer is research assistant, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), Washington DC)

Read more at: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/heres-how-india-can-clean-up-fake-news-mess/articleshow/65493474.cms