A man poses with a smartphone in front of displayed Whatsapp logo in this illustration September 14, 2017. (REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/File Photo)
Seeks help from Indian experts to fight misinformation
New Delhi, July 4 (IANS): Taking cognisance of the Indian government’s concerns over the misuse of its platform for repeated circulation of provocative content, Facebook-owned WhatsApp on Wednesday wrote to the IT Ministry saying the company is horrified by terrible acts of violence.
Reacting to the growing instances of lynching of innocent people owing to large number of irresponsible messages filled with rumours and provocation circulated on WhatsApp, the IT Ministry on Tuesday asked WhatsApp to take immediate action and ensure that the platform is not used for such malafide activities.
“Thank you for your letter dated July 2. Like the Government of India, we’re horrified by these terrible acts of violence and wanted to respond quickly to the very important issues you have raised. We believe this is a challenge that requires government, civil society and technology companies to work together,” WhatsApp said in the letter sent to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY).
WhatsApp which has over 200 million monthly active users in India, listed a number of measures it has taken in the recent past to control the spread of misinformation and abuse on its platform.
“We have been testing a new label in India that highlights when a message has been forwarded versus composed by the sender.
“This could serve as an important signal for recipients to think twice before forwarding messages because it lets a user know if content they received was written by the person they know or a potential rumor from someone else. We plan to launch this new feature soon,” the company informed.
According to media reports, over 30 people have been killed in the past one year by lynch mobs after rumours of child lifting triggered via messages on WhatsApp.
In Mid-May, said WhatsApp, it added new protections to prevent people from adding others back into groups which they had left — a form of misuse we think it is important to correct.
“Last week, we launched a new setting that enables administrators to decide who gets to send messages within individual groups. This will help reduce the spread of unwanted messages into important group conversations – as well as the forwarding of hoaxes and other content,” the popular messaging platform noted.
WhatsApp has also announced a new project to work with leading academic experts in India to learn more about the spread of misinformation.
“The fact-checking organisation Boom Live is available on WhatsApp and has published some reports on the source of the rumours that have contributed to the recent violence,” the company said.
While WhatsApp messages can be highly viral, the way people use the app is by nature still very private.
“Many people (nearly 25 per cent in India) are not in a group; the majority of groups continue to be small (less than 10 people); and nine in 10 messages are still sent from just one person to another,” WhatsApp informed.
The company also asked to Indian government to talk further about the actions it is taking and its plans going forward.
“With the right action we can help improve everyone’s safety by ensuring communities are better equipped to deal with malicious hoaxes and false information — while still enabling people to communicate reliably and privately across India,” it noted.
WhatsApp also announced to soon start an engagement programme with the law enforcement officials across the country so “they are familiar with our approach and how we can be helpful.”
Commissions competitive set of awards to researchers
To enhance its understanding of the safety problems of users, WhatsApp said it was commissioning a competitive set of awards to researchers interested in exploring issues that are related to misinformation on WhatsApp in India.
“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,” a WhatsApp spokesperson said in a statement.
“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 statement added.
The “WhatsApp Research Awards” will provide funding for independent research proposals that are designed to be shared with WhatsApp, Facebook, and wider scholarly and policy communities, the company said in a blog post.
The programme will make unrestricted awards of up to $50,000 per research proposal, WhatsApp said, adding that it was seeking proposals that explore the factors that lead to promotion of fake information including election-related misinformation.
Applications for the proposal are due by August 12, 2018.