Whatsapp & ‘Fake News’ Fuelling Mob Killings In India

Farai Mudzingwa Avatar
Fake news problem on WhatsApp

Over the past few weeks you may have come across a headline (or headlines) to do with mob killings in India. What would have caught your eye in these headlines is the fact that Whatsapp is heavily involved in these killings.

What’s really going on?

Since May –which is just over month ago- more than twelve people have been killed in violent acts that are fuelled by fake social media messages.

  • July 1 – a mob killed five people after rumors spread that they were trafficking children
  • June 28 – Three people killed in violence fuelled by death of a young boy on the 26th. Rumors had begun spreading that the boy had fallen victim to organ harvesters. Authorities hired three people to dispel the rumors and they were attacked by a mob which resulted in their death.
  • June 8 – Four lives taken in two separate incidents related to Whatsapp messages. Two lynched as they are rumoured to be child traffickers. The other two were rumoured to be robbers.
  • These are not all the people who’s lives have been taken because of false messages on social media platforms. Since May (last year) 29 lives have been lost.

This seems to be a widespread problem and even here in Zimbabwe I have seen messages circulate accusing people of Satanism and other acts. The problem with this version of ‘fake news’ is that the messages always appeal to the most extreme emotions in us so before one even gets a chance to verify news they are already triggered.

What can Whatsapp do?

Whatsapp have already started ramping up efforts to combat fake news. They added a feature that marks forwarded messages but in all honesty this is one of the most useless features and it doesn’t really solve anything. Simply marking a message as ‘forwarded’ is not enough because it doesn’t necessarily invalidate the message. What happens when a forwarded message is factual? And then when it’s not?

Some in India have called for the ‘forwarded’ label to also come with the number of the original sender of a message. The only problem with that is it is a blatant invasion of users privacy. Let’s say you send a joke to someone and the recipient finds it funny and decides to share that joke in a group with 200 contacts. All of a sudden 199 contacts now have your number and if they also decide to share with other groups the list of people who have your number continues to grow.

Another problem is the encryption. Because WhatsApp has end to end encryption its hard to track where a message originated and even the people and Whatsapp don’t have a way to know where messages orginated. If they remove this encryption a storm would brew quickly as there would be the risk of having to  . Or Facebook (the owner of WhatsApp) giving out the data to third parties for targeted advertising. You just never know with these companies…

Blame game…

The Indian government is wrongly pointing fingers at Whatsapp on this one. The messaging service is merely a communication tool and Whatsapp cannot and should not control the messages sent on the platform

Honestly, I do not see what WhatsApp can do that will actually help stop the spread of ‘fake news’ since its difficult to actually distinguish between what is true or false. The responsibility lies with users to verify information before they begin spreading.

What can be done about ‘fake news’?

Unfortunately not much at this point. Some people feel that laws should be put in place to curb fake news but since laws are made by the government there’s a high risk that instead of regulation there will be censoring. Malaysia went ahead and put in place some laws and penalties to deal with fake news.

The move obviously goes against free speech and has not gone down well with human rights activists. It’s fair that human rights activists feel this way but once lives are being lost it is also fair for governments to try and act to regulate the spread the falsehoods that are endangering citizens in their countries.