Globally it is an issue, misinformation is an issue. But in India it is more magnified because of our scale, because of our population. In fact in some parts of India, it is also believed that whatsapp is Internet. With the Sabarimala issue, there are very vicious videos circulating in kerela in Malayalam.
But the main question here comes is who is circulating them? How are they coming? Should we take action? OR first and foremost should we even believe in them? Or should they just be ignored and deleted?
Is this an issue that we need to talk to the consumers about?
Misinformation, fake news and rumours on Whatsapp has led to violence, many deaths and lynching in India.
The popular messaging app, Whatsapp is under fire over abuse of its platform for circulation of fake news that has incited mob fury.
The IT Ministry official said that WhatsApp has responded to the government last notice, outlining initiatives being taken to curb fake news circulation including education and advocacy efforts.
It is also building an India-based team; the official said but noted that the measures do not meet the government's expectations on 'traceability' and attribution of such messages.
WhatsApp, on its part, has maintained that message attributions would "undermine the private nature" of the platform, and leave it vulnerable potentially to "serious misuse", a company official said.
A WhatsApp spokesperson said: "To support our users in India and continue our investment in the country, it's our top priority to hire a local leader who can help us build a team on the ground."
"People rely on WhatsApp for all kinds of sensitive conversations, including with their doctors, banks and families. The police also use WhatsApp to discuss investigations and report crimes.
"Attributing messages on WhatsApp would undermine the private nature of WhatsApp and create the potential for serious misuse. Our focus is on improving WhatsApp and working closely with others in society to help keep people safe," the spokesperson added.
WhatsApp said it believes the challenge of mob violence requires government, civil society, and technology companies to work together. "It's why we've already made significant product changes to help slow the spread of misinformation and are working to educate people on how to spot fake news," WhatsApp said.
Therefore Facebook-owned WhatsApp on Tuesday, 13th November announced that it has selected 20 research teams worldwide - including experts from India and those of Indian origin -- who will work towards how misinformation spreads and what additional steps the mobile messaging platform could take to curb fake news and has also decided to award a research grant of $1 million to 20 research teams from 11 countries including India to investigate fake news and misinformation. "Each of the 20 research teams will receive up to $50,000 for their project (for a total of $1 million)," WhatsApp said in a statement.
The Indian government has also directed WhatsApp to take necessary remedial measures to prevent proliferation of fake and, at times, motivated/sensational messages on its platform.
This Whatsapp grant that Centre for Media Studies and Penn State University have got basically to study the misinformation and the fake news that keeps circulating over Whatsapp and possibly come up with some kind of statistics as to who is doing it, whether it has certain socio-economic dimensions, whether literacy has some kind of an aspect in making people vulnerable to some kind of information or is there a rural-urban divide in terms of how information is being processed by an individual.
WhatsApp had also issued a call for papers in July this year and received proposals from over 600 research teams around the world. According to Mrinalini Rao, lead researcher at WhatsApp, the platform cares deeply about the safety of its over 1.5 billion monthly active users globally and over 200 million users in India. "We appreciate the opportunity to learn from these international experts about how we can continue to help address the impact of misinformation," Rao said. "These studies will help us build upon recent changes we have made within WhatsApp and support broad education campaigns to help keep people safe," she added.
The recipients are from countries including Brazil, India, Indonesia, Israel, Mexico, Netherlands, Nigeria, Singapore, Spain, the UK and US. WhatsApp said it is hosting them in California this week so they can hear from product leaders about how it builds its product.
"Given the nature of private messaging - where 90 per cent of the messages sent are between two people and group sizes are strictly limited - our focus remains on educating and empowering users and proactively tackling abuse," said the company.
WhatsApp recently implemented a "forward label" to inform users when they received a message that was not originally written by their friend or loved one. To tackle abuse, WhatApp has also set a limit on how many forwards can be sent. In India, WhatsApp has partnered with the Digital Empowerment Foundation to train community leaders in several states on how to address misinformation.
"We are also running ads in several languages -- in print, online, and on over 100 radio stations -- amounting to the largest public education campaign on misinformation anywhere in the world," the company noted.
Among the group of people selected were Vineet Kumar from Ranchi-headquartered Cyber Peace Foundation (principal investigator), Amrita Choudhary, President of the Delhi-based non-profit Cyber Café Association of India (CCAOI) and Anand Raje from Cyber Peace Foundation. They will work as a team on the paper titled "Digital literacy and impact of misinformation on emerging digital societies".
P.N. Vasanti from Centre for Media Studies in New Delhi woll work withS. Shyam Sundar, The Pennsylvania State University (Principal Investigator) to examine the role of content modality in vulnerability to misinformation, under the topic titled "Seeing is Believing: Is Video Modality More Powerful in Spreading Fake News?"
Also, Shakuntala Banaji from London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), Anushi Agrawal and Nihal Passanha from Bengaluru-based media and arts collective "Maraa" and Ramnath Bhat from LSE have been selected for the paper titled "WhatsApp Vigilantes? WhatsApp messages and mob violence in India".
But the question here that arises is will these measures make a difference?
One of the main concerns of fake news stories is that they can polarise society, particularly during political events. Leading up to the gubernatorial election in Jakarta earlier this year, more than 1,000 reports about politics and the election were confirmed as hoaxes. One particular ‘fake news’ campaign against the main opposition candidate, Anies Baswedan, read, “If Mr Baswedan loses the election, there will be a Muslim Revolution”. Historically, the Jarkata election has always been ethnically and religiously divisive. However, this bogus claim, along with similar fake stories, exacerbated the divisions in society and pulled cultures within the nation even further apart.
Fake news stories can not only polarise different groups within a nation but also affect international relations. In May 2017 Qatar’s state news agency claimed that its Twitter account had been compromised, and hackers had published fake comments allegedly made by the emir criticising aspects of US and Arab Gulf foreign policy towards Iran. Although the news agency was quick to label the comments as false, this did not prevent neighbouring countries Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt severing diplomatic ties with the country.
On a more social level, never has society been so obsessed with the ‘celebrity’ concept. Celebrity scandals dominate the tabloids on a daily basis. Even though some of these scandals are so far-fetched that it would seem obvious they’re not real, but most readers are unable to distinguish these from real stories. Only in march, a cruel hoax tweet went viral claiming that iconic movie star Clint Eastwood had been found dead at his home. We can only imagine how Eastwood and his family might react to the story, but perhaps the scene from Dirty Harry where he reprises his ‘Do you feel lucky, punk?’ speech might go some way here.
Fake scandals often seem more believable than the truth and have led to racism, harassment, intimidation and damage to reputation. A recent story about a jewellery shop in the US published by Buzzfeed, claiming that the shop replaced real diamonds for fake ones, led to a fall in the brand's stock by 3.7% and caused irreparable reputational damage and loss of business.
Fake news through social media:
The biggest factor behind the success of fake news stories is their high level of social engagement. In the lead-up to the 2016 US election, the public’s engagement with fake news through Facebook was higher than through mainstream sources.
Social networks connect us with other like-minded people. Our network of ‘friends’ on Facebook, ‘followers’ on Twitter, generally consist of people who share our values and beliefs. These values may be social, political or economic, and the information we share through these networks helps to define who we are and what we believe in.
This identity is then reinforced the more we read similar news stories shared through our social network, confirming our ideas and biases. And herein lies the underlying force that propagates false information and further polarises society’s partisan. Quite ironic really, considering Facebook’s sole mission statement has been to ‘connect the world.’
According to Damian Collins, Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the increase of fake news is 'a threat to democracy and undermines confidence in the media in general'. With fake news sites increasing their revenue through digital advertising, the credibility of media organisations and public trust in journalism is under threat.
Therefore with Whatsapp taking up such dynamic actions against fake news, it’s sure to cause lesser trouble to people and also help them to keep themselves stuck to their thoughts and not rely on what people have to say on the social media network. It will also stop them from falling into false trap laid down by the oppositions in the political party and polarise their thoughts.
-By Nikita Moolchandani.