The Indian government has asked popular messaging service WhatsApp to take steps to check the circulation of fake messages on its platform after reports of numerous mob-lynchings across the country triggered by social media rumours.
“The government has also 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,” the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said in a media statement today. “Instances of lynching of innocent people have been noticed recently because of large number of irresponsible and explosive messages filled with rumours and provocation are being circulated on WhatsApp.”
The push to put a check on fake news comes after five people of a nomadic community in Dhule, Maharashtra were allegedly lynched by a mob on the suspicion that they were members of a gang that kidnapped children.
That’s not an isolated instance.
In recent months, fake videos of children being kidnapped, which were circulated on various social media platforms, have caused anxious villagers in rural India to set up patrol groups who lash out at anyone they don’t recognise. Such mobs have already claimed numerous victims. In May and June alone, at least six people died in WhatsApp-related mob attacks in eastern Assam, western Maharashtra and southern Tamil Nadu, Bloomberg reported.
The unfortunate killing in many states such as Assam, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tripura and West Bengal are deeply painful and regrettable.Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology
The IT ministry said that WhatsApp “cannot evade accountability and responsibility”, especially when its technology is being abused by miscreants whose provocative messages are leading to the spread of violence. “The government has also directed that spread of such messages should be immediately contained through the application of appropriate technology.”
It added that the country's law and order machinery is taking steps to apprehend the culprits. Twenty-three people have already been arrested in connection to the Dhule incident on Monday, according to the area’s Superintendent of Police M Ramkumar, newswire agency PTI reported yesterday.
It’s not easy, though, for WhatsApp to control what is being sent on its platform, said Apar Gupta, a Supreme Court advocate and co-founder of the Internet Freedom Foundation of India. That’s because WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted “which means the message envelope cannot be read by the company or the government,” Gupta told BloombergQuint. “As we look deeper, we will find that there is actually a poor law and order situation where these people were lynched.”
This [mob-lynching] is a policing failure. Principally, this is a state failure. We should first look at the state and then look at the technology.Apar Gupta, Supreme Court Advocate
But WhatsApp needs to make some changes to its platform as the fake news problem is only going to get bigger, according to Nikhil Pahwa, a digital rights activist and the founder of news portal Medianama.
“That’s only going to increase because of the large number of people coming online in India,” Pahwa said. “There needs to be a difference between media and messaging, where media involves accountability and attribution while messaging is private from one person to the other. The problem is that Whatsapp has turned into both.”
New Group Settings
Only last week, WhatsApp had added new features for chat group administrators, giving them more control over the content that is being posted.
The new settings allow admins to restrict who can change a group's subject, icon and description. There is also a feature in which only an administrator will be able to send messages to a group. “We've introduced this new setting so admins can have better tools for these use cases,” WhatsApp had said in a blog post.