Combating misinformation


Depending on how technology is used, it can drastically alter the human condition for better or worse. Take WhatsApp, the instant messaging platform developed by former Yahoo employees and snapped up by Facebook. It has presently over 100 crore users with one-fifth estimated to be in India alone. But even as its growth continues to accelerate, there is much concern over rumour mongers and fake news purveyors hijacking this platform. Around 30 persons have been lynched across the country in the past year alone on the suspicion of being child lifters, triggered via messages spread on WhatsApp. Assam has been affected, as witnessed recently in spontaneous public protests over the mob killing of two youths at Dokmoka in Karbi Anglong district. Similar incidents have been reported from States like Tripura, West Bengal, Karnataka and Maharashtra; in the most recent incident at Dhule in Maharashtra, villagers beat to death five tribal youths after a message went viral on WhatsApp about a gang of child-lifters targeting children for their kidneys. WhatsApp has features which have proved susceptible to lightning spread of such rumours and fake news — text, image, audio and video messages can be sent over internet to be shared within groups and disseminated on and on. Within minutes, rabble rousers or miscreants can pass on provocative messages and orchestrate mob attacks. Waking up to this threat, the Central government has now asked WhatsApp for urgent steps to prevent repeated circulation of irresponsible and explosive content on its platform. “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 to prevent proliferation of these fake and at times motivated/sensational messages,” the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) has said in a statement, warning that accountability and responsibility cannot be evaded for such mayhem. The government will also seek suggestions from the likes of Facebook and Twitter to check the menace. WhatsApp is learnt to have responded to the government’s call, promising to launch control and fact checking features, while citing the protections already introduced, like preventing users from adding others back into groups they had left, and enabling administrators to decide who gets to send messages within individual groups. A label being planned will highlight when a message has been forwarded, so recipients will “think twice before forwarding messages” — because it lets a user know if the content received was written by a known person or if it was a potential rumour spread by someone else. To learn more about how misinformation is spread, WhatsApp has reportedly expressed readiness to work with leading experts; it will also hold engagement programmes with law enforcement officials to deal with malicious hoaxes and false information. A social media or messaging platform may well claim to be a neutral intermediary, but there has to be some mechanism to pull down objectionable content and block its transmission. It remains to be seen how effective technical solutions are to counter human mischief, but it is high time users are educated about such platforms and observe the necessary etiquette. No message ought to be passed on without verifying its authenticity; even if it happens to be true, there should be an application of mind about the consequences of sharing it. A country aiming to go digital in a big way cannot afford digital illiteracy among its people.