Will shutting down WhatsApp really solve the increasing menace of fake news?

Imposing responsibility on WhatsApp cannot be the sole solution to an issue like fake news.

Since the I&B Ministry pulled up Whatsapp for the increasing fake news menace in India, different solutions have been offered from different quarters. The latest is a call to force Whatsapp to shut down until it fixes the problem, coming from Vivek Wadhwa, a Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School and Carnegie Mellon University.

Men pose with smartphones in front of displayed Whatsapp logo in this illustration September 14, 2017. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic - RC1754A449A0

Men pose with smartphones in front of displayed Whatsapp logo in this illustration. Image: Reuters

In particular, he refers to the techniques used by such social media companies to keep users addicted and dependent on these companies for their news, which in turn maximizes their profits. He argues that there is a need to incentivize these companies by putting these profits at stake, by shutting them down until they find solutions to menaces like fake news.

How companies use technology to keep you addicted

For some time now, reports have arisen on how technology is utilized to keep internet users addicted. Tristan Harris, in this essay, outlines several of these. Consider a gambling slot machine, which is designed so you get rewards only once in a while. So, each time you pull the lever, you actually get the reward, of varying amounts, only at random intervals. The result is that in anticipation of that random reward, which though random, is frequent enough so you don’t lose interest, you keep pulling the lever over and over, and in the end, wind up addicted.

News feeds, for example, work in the same way, with the actually relevant information scattered randomly in your list, resulting in the same addictive effect. The fear of missing something important, for instance, is one of the psychological factors that drive people to keep scrolling down that list.

Whatsapp specifically, uses factors like the interruptive nature of Whatsapp notifications on your smartphone, along with methods like letting the other person know when you read their message, or of when you are typing. These factors, on the one hand, drive people to keep checking their phones for notifications, and on the other, pressurize them to keep replying instantly.

Put Facebook, Whatsapp profits at stake

Given that companies like Facebook and Whatsapp are actively using such psychological and addiction inducing methods to increase their use and thus their profits, Wadhwa argues that this fact should be used to put these very profits at risk till they solve the issues created. He argues that companies like Facebook have designed their news feeds so people are, firstly, addicted, and secondly, reliant on these companies for their news, without taking any responsibility for the accuracy or authenticity for this news. Thus, he argues that Whatsapp should be shut down, putting its profits at stake, until it can come up with a solution.

Representational image

Representational image

Is singling out Whatsapp justified?

The argument certainly has merits, but the question arises regarding whether shutting down the company in question is the solution, and further if there is any justification in singling out Whatsapp for this. The problem of fake news and spreading of rumours is far more widespread. Shutting down all such companies to cut off their profits till they find a solution to fake news, would mean shutting down a wide range of social media platforms, communication platforms, websites and even news and media companies. This would be, in many ways, similar to the government shutting down the internet altogether to deal with such issues.

Can a threat to profits through regulation help?

However, it is without question that a threat to the companies’ profits will drive them to act. An example of this is with privacy laws which, in India, were mainly self-regulatory and a failure. However, the GDPR, with its fine of 4% of the annual global turnovers, has driven every company to become privacy compliant, but for their European customers only.

Contentious nature of regulating online content

Imposing fines through regulations, however, comes with a price. Regulation of online content is a highly contentious issue. The I&B Ministry’s call to regulate online content a few months ago was met with widespread fears of the threat it would pose to people’s fundamental rights and freedom of speech. The fear of censorship and a new Section 66A are primary among these. The online content industry itself greatly resisted the idea of any more responsibility than they already have, given the massive volumes of content generated per second.

Dealing with online copyright infringement through threat to profits

Yet, there is no question that a threat to profits and revenues creates solutions that were previously thought to be impossible. Consider copyright laws and YouTube. YouTube is protected under copyright and internet laws as an intermediary, and its only liability towards infringing online content is to take it down when the content is brought to its notice.

Viacom’s $ 1 billion suit against YouTube in 2007 for copyright infringement, however, forced YouTube to take on greater responsibility, for fears of further suits. Though the Viacom suit was finally settled out of Court in 2014, it led to the creation of ContentID to help YouTube monitor infringing content. ContentID as a system is itself ridden with problems, but clearly, solutions can be found even to enable regulating online content.

Another similar instance with YouTube was the 2017 boycott of advertisers like Verizon and Walmart, over their advertisements being shown alongside extremist content and hate speech.  Even this, did lead to changes in YouTube’s action against online content. Clearly, greater responsibility on the part of these companies is possible, given the right incentives.

The WhatsApp app logo is seen on a smartphone in this picture illustration taken September 15, 2017. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration - RC11C459CFA0

The WhatsApp app logo is seen on a smartphone in this picture illustration. Image: Reuters

Fakes news and resultant deaths are a collective failure

Imposing responsibility on social media companies like Whatsapp is possible and is certainly important, but this cannot be the sole solution to an issue like fake news. Unlike the Facebook Cambridge Analytica issue, which is almost entirely a failure on the part of Facebook, fake news and resultant deaths are a collective failure.

The emphasis of the role of social media companies in enabling the spread of the news leads to an overlooking of other factors responsible, in particular, that the news is not created by them, nor are the deaths instigated by them. As Apar Gupta notes here, other factors responsible include the lack of a proper law against lynching or a governmental drive to enact one and the fact that many of the victims are from minorities and nomadic tribes.

Need for a collective solution

The problem of fake news is much deeper, and points to the failure of many- of the social media companies for failing to take responsibility for vetting or spreading the news, of the government for failing to prevent the murders or taking the culprits to task, of the legislature for failing to enact the required laws, and equally, of the people themselves for spreading such news and for blindly believing it. The responsibility to resolve it, thus, cannot be imposed on a single entity alone.

For resolving the issue of online content, the social media companies, the government, researchers, technology developers and innovators, and the people themselves must come together. Initiatives like that of police superintendent Rema Rajeshwari to tackle fake news through educating the people must be encouraged. The issue is a collective one, and so must the solution.

The author is a lawyer and author specializing in technology, privacy and cyber laws. She is also a certified information privacy professional.


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