Inside WhatsApp’s battle against misinformation in India

WhatsApp will intensify its purge of accounts that abuse its platform in India as political parties look to bypass the messaging app’s controls to galvanize potential voters ahead of a closely watched general election in May 2019.

The company banned hundreds of accounts connected to a political party during elections in the southern state of Karnataka earlier this year as they attempted to message thousands of groups, a source within WhatsApp said.

WhatsApp is expected continue to train its algorithms on how things are shared rather than what is shared and clamp down on “spam farms” in its efforts to fight misinformation with minimal help from fact-checkers in India next year.

It also sent cease-and-desist letters to marketing companies advertising the ability to send mass messages on WhatsApp, said the source, who does not wish to be named since the information was not publicly disclosed.

The Facebook-owned messaging service has had a grueling 2018, drawing flak globally for what have come to be known as “WhatsApp Killings.”

Since January 2017, 33 people have been lynched by mobs in separate incidents fueled by child kidnapping rumors that ran rampant on WhatsApp. At least 25 of those lynchings took place this year alone.

In all cases, the victims were lynched on mere suspicion and no evidence of them being child abductors was ever found. The killing cycle that began in May seems to have paused since mid-August, and no one knows why.

Fact-checkers fear that violent eyewitness videos from those lynchings will be recycled to spread disinformation.

India is the world’s second largest smartphone market after China and WhatsApp’s largest market, with over 200 million monthly active users.

However, the app mutated from an intimate messaging service to a megaphone of misinformation as mobile internet plans exploded in late 2016, bringing millions of Indians online for the first time.

Many first-time internet users have been unable to discern between real and fake.

Conspiracy theories about historical, political, religious and health-related topics have become par for the course on the app.  

WhatsApp, which is commonly misidentified under the umbrella term “social media,” is unlike Facebook and Twitter where fact-checkers can debunk and search for misinformation that comes to the surface.

Its ubiquitous nature and end-to-end encryption feature (which limits the company itself from reading messages) have also made it the medium of choice for political parties in the world’s largest democracy to spread unfiltered propaganda.

In May 2018, BOOM reported that the Bharatiya Janata Party administered about 23,000 WhatsApp groups with an average of 80 members each in Karnataka in an effort to dislodge the incumbent Congress party in the state. The upper limit of a group size on WhatsApp is still 256.

So acute has been WhatsApp’s battle with misinformation in India that in July it announced restrictions on forwarding (from 100 forwards at a time down to five in India and to 20 for the rest of the world) It also introduced a “forwarded” label on messages. The label, however, has not been translated into other Indian languages beyond English.

The company also did away with the “quick forward” option next to media messages (photos and videos) and introduced a “suspicious link” label for URLs that its algorithm could detect contained unusual characters.

It also went on a marketing offensive. In July, it ran full-page newspaper ads in several Indian states urging people to check the information they received before sharing. In October, WhatsApp hit the road performing street plays in small towns as a grassroots effort to battle misinformation in partnership with Reliance Jio, a telecom service provider, controlled by Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man.

The company appointed its first India head — Abhijit Bose, co-founder and CEO of Ezetap, a Bangalore-based payments technology company — in November.

The company also awarded $50,000 each to 20 research projects that will study how misinformation spreads on the app.

In its latest effort, WhatsApp launched three video ads in ten languages as part of its “Share Joy, Not Rumors” campaign. One of its ads even depicts a middle-aged Indian uncle who spams the family WhatsApp group with dodgy forwards.

WhatsApp’s nightmarish Indian summer has put it at loggerheads with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled government in New Delhi.

India’s Ministry of Electronics & IT wrote to WhatsApp in July castigating it for abuse of its platform and asking the company to do more.

“When rumors and fake news get propagated by mischief mongers, the medium used for such propagation cannot evade responsibility and accountability,” the ministry said in a press note. “If they remain mute spectators, they are liable to be treated as abettors and thereafter face consequent legal action.”

New Delhi has repeatedly warned WhatsApp that it cannot evade responsibility and accountability.

“The government is not incorrect to expect active cooperation and support from platforms,” said Prasanto K Roy, a technology and media analyst based in New Delhi. “But it should be cognizant of limitations of intermediary liability, and the dangers of making too many unreasonable access or intercept demands in a democracy.”

While on one hand the government publicly admonishes WhatsApp, the app has become an indispensable part of its digital campaign.

And it’s not just the Bharatiya Janata Party that is waging a digital war for the mind of the Indian voter; functionaries and supporters of the Congress — whose digital infrastructure is a distant cry from the party’s — are frequently being called out for peddling misinformation. The party appears to be increasingly resorting to the same tactics it claims to be fighting.

Ultimately, combating misinformation on WhatsApp will require more than just ensuring the app functions as a messaging service rather than a megaphone.

“A platform is a platform. It’s an intermediary. Fake news must be tackled at the source, largely political parties, including the biggest of them,” Roy said.