A day after the government voiced concern over WhatsApp messages triggering lynching in parts of the country, the US-based social media platform said fake news, misinformation, and hoaxes can be checked by the government, civil society and technology companies working together.
Outlining steps it has taken to curb abuse of its platform, WhatsApp — in its response to a notice sent by India’s IT Ministry — said it has the ability to prevent spam but since it cannot see the content of private messages, blocking can be done only based on user reports.
However, IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad today demanded greater accountability from social media platforms, saying finding technological fixes to identify mass-circulation of messages on a particular issue, in a particular area cannot be “rocket science”.
He asserted that social media companies like WhatsApp that are reaping commercial gains from India’s market, have to remain accountable and vigilant to prevent abuse of their platforms for the spread of dangerous and provocative messages.
Prasad said while he had taken note of the assurances offered by WhatsApp, these commitments should become a reality at the earliest.
“WhatsApp needs to recognise that our country offers a huge market for them and they are making good money out of India operations, so they must focus on security aspects in India in particular. If it requires the creation of more avenues of technology for safety, they must do it soon,” Prasad asserted.
Rumours on WhatsApp have triggered a spate of incidents involving mob fury, the latest being lynching of five men on the suspicion of being child-lifters in Maharashtra’s Rainpada village of Dhule district.
The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology on July 2 had written to WhatsApp asking it to take immediate steps to prevent the circulation of false information and provocative content, saying it “cannot evade accountability and responsibility”.
WhatsApp responded to this with a letter to the ministry yesterday, contents of which were reviewed by PTI.
“We believe that false news, misinformation and the spread of hoaxes are issues best tackled collectively: by government, civil society and technology companies working together,” it wrote.
It expressed confidence that with the right action, “we can help improve everyone’s safety by ensuring communities are better equipped to deal with malicious hoaxes and false information while still enabling people to communicate reliably and privately across India.” With India being its biggest market with over 200 million users, the Facebook Inc-owned messenger service asserted that it responds to “valid” law enforcement requests in investigating crimes.
Whatsapp said it is “horrified by these terrible acts of violence” and its strategy to deal with the situation involves giving people the controls and information they need to stay safe while working proactively to prevent misuse of the service.
Without specifying whether it will stop services of any person found to be spreading fake news, the company said it has made changes on group chats to prevent the spread of unwanted information.
It has also introduced features that prevent users from re-adding former members and enabling group administrators to decide who can send messages. It is also testing labelling of forwarded messages.
While users can block anyone with just one tap, they are also prompted to report or block when any user — who is not in their address book — sends a message.
“We are also working hard to educate people about how to stay safe online” and give a better understanding of the problematic fake news circulating on WhatsApp, it said.
It is also instituting awards for research on “spread of misinformation” on its platform. This local research, it said, would help the company build upon recent changes it has made within WhatsApp and support broad education to help people spot false news and hoaxes.
Detailing proactive steps to tackle abuse, WhatsApp in its letter said it retains limited information and is end-to-end encrypted but this privacy protection has trade-offs in form of “the inability to see problematic content spreading through private conversations on our app.” “That said, we do have the ability to prevent spam, which includes some of the misinformation that can create mistrust and potentially violence. Because we cannot see the content of messages being sent over WhatsApp we block messages based on user reports and by the manner in which they are sent,” it said.
The company said it uses machine learning to identify accounts sending a high volume of messages and that it is constantly working to improve its ability to stop unwanted automated messages.
Stating that it responds to valid law enforcement requests in crime investigation, it said it will start an engagement programme with law enforcement officials around India.
“We use this technology to protect our user’s privacy and security. While WhatsApp messages can be highly viral, the way people use the app is by nature still very private. Many people (nearly 25 per cent in India) are not in a group; the majority of groups continue to be small (less than 10 people), and nine in ten messages are still sent from just one person to another,” it said.
WhatsApp said it is willing to share further information on its actions if the government so wanted.
This is published unedited from the PTI feed.