Fake news and disinformation on online platforms is one of the major issues that has plagued major technology companies including Facebook in the last two years. The cause of worry it the very real long-term damage and real harm these things are capable of unleashing on the real world. The entire issue came to the forefront when reports of meddling in the US Presidential elections with the help of fake accounts and disinformation surfaced almost two years ago. Popular social media platforms have since been trying to take steps to solve the issue to ensure that malicious groups are not able to exploit existing online platforms to influence unsuspecting users.
However, despite the steps that have been taken so far, social media giants know that there is a long way ahead to ensure that election meddling is not a thing. Major platforms including Facebook and Twitter have been trying to develop processes and systems to keep their platforms safe from disinformation campaigns that are meant to target regular users. Both the companies claim to have done their best in filtering out malicious content. According to an in-depth report by Hindustan Times, reports have emerged out indicating that Facebook needs to do a lot more to stop the misuse of WhatsApp as the 2019 Lok Sabha elections approach.
Likely WhatsApp scandal to influence 2019 Lok Sabha elections
The cause for alarm is likely because of what experts have observed in the recent Brazil elections where it was claimed that WhatsApp was used “to influence the popular vote” with the help of “mass-WhatsApp messages pushing anti-leftist propaganda”. The report claimed that “the likelihood of a WhatsApp scandal in the run-up to the 2019 elections in India is imminent.”
As part of the report, Rahul Matthan, a partner at Trilegal law firm added that he would not be surprised if the scandal has already started in parts of the country. The primary reason for that is there is no control over what messages are shared on WhatsApp and how.
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The report added that India is the largest market for WhatsApp with 200 million users and the lack of a data protection law only adds to the problem. It also noted that India needs a law similar to the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) act to put extremely essential limits on the use of personal data for political campaigns and event marketing as expressed by Amba Ka, the Public Policy adviser at Mozilla.
A known problem
The part that is scary is that the Election Commission, the institution that is responsible for ensuring fair elections in the country is aware of the problem. As stated in the report, Chief Election Commissioner, OP Rawat is aware of the issue.
Level of penetration of campaigning in rural India
As much as 40 percent of rural WhatsApp users were part of groups that were created by members or representatives of political parties. One-third of this 40 percent spends anywhere from one to four hours on the app every day. The report discovered this information with the help of a survey that was conducted by the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF). This showcases the level of political reach that most political parties have in rural India. If you think about it, this may not be a major deal but the survey also notes that about 63 percent of users were not using WhatsApp in 2014, the previous Lok Sabha elections in the country.
In fact, the number of Whatsapp users has doubled in rural India since 2017 according to the Centre of Study of Developing Societies. This indicates that political parties have a much larger user-based as compared to 2014.
Potential solution: Information
The report echoed thoughts of a number of experts stating that one potential solution to ensure that users and elections are not manipulated by disinformation campaigns is constant information and awareness. Constantly informing WhatsApp users about the problem of disinformation and fake news in the country. As previously reported, WhatsApp is already working on a marketing campaign to tackle fake news and experts believe that they should continue to do so.
Though, this is also a partial solution as users are likely to believe people they personally know and it may make them impervious to take the news. According to the report, Sunil Abraham, the director of a think tank. “Centre of Internet and Society” added that the company should work on “a network of fact checkers and explore ‘in application education’”.