Lok Sabha Elections 2019: Here's everything WhatsApp is doing to avoid fake news, propaganda during election period

The problem with WhatsApp is that the posts are totally private and encrypted. So no action can be taken even if the posts are spread through the medium.

India has over 200 million WhatsApp users and is the largest market for the company across the world. Thanks to the massive popularity of this messaging service in India, its misuse is also quite prevalent here. Last year, fake news spread through WhatsApp was responsible for the death of over 30 innocent people. During the election period, misusing WhatsApp to spread fake news and propaganda can have disastrous effects.

Considering a lack of any tool to check the authenticity of the encrypted information shared via WhatsApp, messages shared on the platform could even swing votes in some pockets of the country. But WhatsApp has been taking measures from its end to ensure the election period passes off without any untoward incident caused due to its platform. Let's take a look at some of these initiatives.

Lok Sabha Elections 2019: Heres everything WhatsApp is doing to avoid fake news, propaganda during election period

Representational image.

Educating WhatsApp users

WhatsApp has added a ‘Forwarded Label’ which helps users know that a message was forwarded to them or created by people they know. While the Forwarding Info feature shows how many times a message has been forwarded, Frequently Forwarded Message option lets you decide if you want to receive messages in your group chat that are frequently forwarded around (like the 'Good Morning' messages).

WhatsApp has also run educational advertising campaigns nationally in 10 languages in television, print, online and radio to help prevent the spread of rumours and fake news. Last October, there was news about WhatsApp using street theatre to spread awareness about misinformation in light of the incessant mob-lynchings that were taking place around the time.

It has launched a new setting that enables administrators to decide who can send messages within groups. This will help reduce the spread of unwanted messages, including hoaxes.

WhatsApp conducting street plays to educate users. Image: Reuters

WhatsApp conducting street plays to educate users. Image: Reuters

Stopping the misuse of the platform

WhatsApp has limited the Forward Limit whereby making it one of the few technology companies to intentionally constrain sharing. WhatsApp has also banned spam accounts by identifying accounts engaging in abnormal behaviour so they can’t be used to spread spam or misinformation according to its whitepaper on stopping abuse.

WhatsApp has also made changes to the Report tab and encourages users to inform it about a range of potential issues they encounter on WhatsApp. It has also appointed a grievance officer who can be contacted directly if a user has concerns about their WhatsApp experience.

Partnerships with DEF and Nasscom

WhatsApp is also working with government and civil society to fight misinformation. It has awarded 20 independent research grants for work in different areas, some of which involve keeping things on the platform clean during election periods.

WhatsApp has partnered with digital literacy NGOs and has developed a training curriculum that addresses safety issues and spotting rumours. It worked with the Digital Empowerment Foundation to train community leaders across 10 states in the lead up to the elections. WhatsApp has also partnered with NASSCOM Foundation with an aim to reach approximately 100,000 Indians with training to spot false information and provide tips and tricks to stay safe on WhatsApp.

WhatsApp has provided the curriculum developed by it to the government of India, which in turn has made it available on their education portal. In order to check facts on some news users are advised to message Boom Live and Alt News, as well as the news consortium Ekta.

WhatsApp has also provided training to law enforcement agencies on how to use WhatsApp as a resource in their community. The training also included grievance handling of citizens and the process to make legal requests to WhatsApp in the process of investigating a crime. WhatsApp also facilitated political party training in the five Indian states which went to polls in 2018. WhatsApp is also growing a local team based in India which includes local legal, policy, and business teams.

WhatsApp does not believe in editorialising content

As we are already in the first phase of General Elections 2019 and WhatsApp has the potential for being used to spread misinformation, sources in WhatsApp have said that WhatsApp does not believe in editorialising content. "

My truth can be your misinformation and therefore it is difficult to take action against an individual account holder for the spread of fake news," said the sources. Only in cases where a piece of news floating on WhatsApp causes real term harm or absolute violence, does WhatsApp go ahead and ban the account. As for misinformation, WhatsApp does not ban the account. In fact defining misinformation is also an issue for them, our sources said.

How does WhatsApp stop the abuse of its platform?

WhatsApp has built in sophisticated machine learning systems to detect misuse and ban suspicious accounts at the time of registration, during messaging and in response to user reports. WhatsApp has removed over two million accounts per month for bulk or automated behaviour. This is particularly important during elections where certain groups may attempt to send messages at large scale.

At the time of registration all accounts are sent a temporary code via SMS or Phone call. With this the system can detect if a similar phone number has been recently abused or if the computer network registration has been associated with suspicious behaviour. While messaging, the intensity of user activity can provide a signal that accounts are abusing WhatsApp. For example, an account that's recently registered, trying to send 100 messages in 15 seconds is certain to be engaged in abuse. These accounts are banned immediately and automatically. Also, if an account accumulate negative feedback when other users submit reports or can block the account, then WhatsApp systems evaluate the account and take action as may be required.

In case of someone with a political motivation, such as attempts to distort the public discussion with false information, WhatsApp limits on how many groups an account can create within a certain time period and bans an account with suspicious group behaviour. The political parties may acquire targeted lists of phone numbers from third parties to message users over WhatsApp without their consent. The users can report or exit from such groups through the option provided by WhatsApp. In India WhatsApp has tied up with a NGO, Suniti Foundation which has done training for political parties. They have educated political parties about the rules of using WhatsApp.

Our sources mentioned the example of Mexico: “In Mexico there was a coalition of fact checkers that was formed by journalists’ organisations. The platform was called Verificado. There WhatsApp urged them to use the story feature that they have on WhatsApp called Status to post the correct news. That helped them to reach everyone on their contacts. Every time they got a piece of news they uploaded it on Status, which helped their contact list to know if the news is fake, true or false.”

WhatsApp in India has also unveiled its 'Checkpoint Tipline', where people can check the authenticity of information received by them. The tipline which will help create database of fake news and rumours is being launched by PROTO. Indian users can submit misinformation or rumors they receive to the Checkpoint Tipline on WhatsApp (+91-9643-000-888). But as later claimed by both PROTO and WhatsApp, this tipline is just meant for research purposes and will not let you know if the message you forwarded to the tipline number is real or fake. The initiative is aimed more towards research than busting myths, which at this stage of our elections makes it pointless really.

Majority of the efforts of WhatsApp are geared towards stopping of bulk news and there is little or no action against the fake news. Even if someone reports to WhatsApp about misinformation, they may not be in position to ban the account. In short, WhatsApp may ban accounts indulging in bulk messaging, but it's not doing much to ban accounts suspected of spreading fake news.

The problem with WhatsApp is that the posts are totally private and encrypted. So no action can be taken if the posts are spread through the medium. The ‘forwarded’ label is also of not much help as the content is now first shared through unofficial accounts followed by official accounts. Also, the fact that there is a limit to number of members in a group does not help as there may be 256 members in a group and new groups are mushrooming.

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