Indian government has asked social messaging startup WhatsApp owned by Facebook to take steps to curb the spread of misinformation and provocative messages on its platform. The directive comes after a series of lynchings and mob beatings across the country that are said to have been triggered by messages circulated on WhatsApp.
With over 200 million monthly active users, India is one of the biggest market base for WhatsApp. The distribution of false news and videos on the messaging application has turned into a new painpoint for Facebook, which is facing heightened scrutiny from the US Congress over spread of misinformation and abuse of user privacy. The media reports indicate false messages about child abductors have led to mass beatings of more than a dozen people in India and has led to three deaths.
In a fresh incident of communal lynching, five people were beaten to death by a mob on Sunday in Maharashtra on suspicion that they were child abductors. “Deep disapproval of such developments has been conveyed to the senior management of WhatsApp and they have been advised that necessary remedial measures should be taken,” India’s IT ministry said in a strongly-worded statement on Tuesday.
The ministry also said that law enforcement authorities are taking necessary steps to apprehend culprits responsible for killing. However, the spread of fake news and doctored videos on WhatsApp remains a cause of concern for the authorities. While WhatsApp has its own privacy and data protection rules, the ministry that the messaging application “cannot evade accountability and responsibility” when its platform is being abused by users.
“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,” it added.
WhatsApp said it does not want its platform to be used for sending misinformation and ill-crafted messages. “WhatsApp cares deeply about the safety of our users. Through this new project, we look forward to working with leading academic experts in India to learn more about how online platforms are used to spread misinformation. This local research will help us build upon recent changes we have made within WhatsApp and support broad education to help people spot false news and hoaxes,” the company spokesperson said in a statement.
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The Facebook-owned messaging platform also announced WhatsApp Research Awards for Social Science and Misinformation where it will provide funding for independent research proposals. The company says these monetary awards will be unrestricted and offer investigators the freedom to deepen and extend their existing research portfolio.
According to Reuters, WhatsApp is also undertaking initiatives educating users to identify fake news. As a first step, it has started labeling forwarded messages on the platform and last week introduced a new setting where only the group admins will be able to send messages to a group.