The government demands a fact-checking and quality control mechanism to curtail the misleading messages spreading at their platform. But for WhatsApp that changes the promise to their customers.
Indians make up WhatsApp’s biggest market globally with around 400 million users. However, with the exponential customer growth, the US-based messaging app is also facing growing debate linked with its identity and privacy of its users in India. Dangerous disinformation spread through the privacy of WhatsApp groups is giving rise to religious hatred and gruesome mob lynching.
WhatsApp has become a powerful tool for illegal and unconstitutional religion polarization and toxic vigilantism.
Recent fake news trends like child abductor scare, cow protectionism and ‘Jai Sri Ram chant affair’ have seen masses turn into butchers. Moreover, lynching scenes were further recorded and circulated on the same WhatsApp groups. WhatsApp disinformation channels in India are heavily linked to political parties.
The Horrifying Effects of the WhatsApp Rumour Mill
According to Osama Manzar, founder and director of the Digital Empowerment Foundation India, there are many factories where skilled, professional content creators spread fake news and misinformation in India. The unchecked spread of dangerously misleading information and fake news led to inhuman mob lynching across India.
With the sharp rise of the right-wing politics since BJP’s 2014 Lok Sabha elections, where Hindutva ideology has blindfolded many religious fanatics into spreading and believing rumours such as cow slaughter and child kidnappers, without any factual evidence. In the last 18 months since April 2018 alone over 17 people have been victims of mob attacks on suspicion of being child kidnappers. As per Police, rumours were incessantly spread through WhatsApp messages.
India has seen over 50 such cases of mob lynching attacks triggered by the misleading information spread WhatsApp and other social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter in the last two years. The Indian government has been inadequate and sometimes powerless in front of such rumour-mongering. In 2018, a government-appointed citizen to educate local village about such rumours on social media was lynched in Tripura.
The increasing mob violence led the government to ask WhatsApp for a way to curb misleading, irresponsible and explosive messaging on the platform.
The Privacy Debate
WhatsApp dominates the digital channels of communication in India. It has penetrated deep into the cultural and socio-political fabrics that make India. However, misinformation on WhatsApp has turned into prolonged misery for several Indians. The government has failed in making stringent laws. Furthermore, there has been a reluctance to speak about such incidents. BJP came back with a bigger mandate in the Indian parliament in 2019. The ‘stability’ has helped passage of monumental legislation like Abrogation of Article 370, Triple Talaq, Surrogacy Act, RTI Amendment, be it good or bad.
However, curtailing the rumour factories of WhatsApp is not easy and closely linked to the Privacy factor, the platforms USP. WhatsApp is an instant messaging service provider. So, it’s a personal messaging app making it crucial for end-to-end encryption for its 1.5 billion global users. So, this makes it technically impossible to narrow down on rampant viral misleading forwards to one source or emerging source. Therefore, WhatsApp cannot do this without privacy intrusion as India wants, thus sparking the debate.
The Indian Government’s response
The Indian government plans to monitor, intercept and trace messages on every social media platform. However, the step has triggered the WhatsApp and social media debate around upholding privacy vs inability to tackle social evil. Activists fear that the fact that a government can easily track down all its citizens curtails the right to free speech and expression. India recently saw a total crackdown on network services in the Kashmir valley after Article 370 abrogation. It saw several citizens in distress due to the unavailability of communication channels.
According to media reports, by January 2020 the Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology will publish a new set of rules for social media intermediaries allowing people to send and share messages. It will also include e-commerce, other apps, and websites. The new draft will also include the demand of a local office in India for any international platform with more than 5 million users in India.
Taking China as an Example
Indian government places China as an example when defending its stance. The Chinese government has a far deeper online surveillance structure. Chinese users also witness the disappearance of messages that contain banned words. Similarly, India wants the platform to use automated tools to keep a check on messages, trace. India also wants WhatsApp to report the original sender or emerging source of misleading messages and videos, which sparked the privacy debate.
The Big Debate: Does India want WhatsApp to flout its own privacy rules?
In a related case in Supreme Court, the Attorney General of India said that social media companies that cannot decrypt the information of such cases including sedition, pornography and other crimes for investigating agencies should have no business carrying on in India.
However, similar to Chinese surveillance WhatsApp recently made a startling revelation that Indian journalists and human rights activists were targets of surveillance using Israeli spyware Pegasus.
WhatsApp’s Crusade against Disinformation
WhatsApp took several steps to come up with solutions such as:
- Limiting the number of forwards to not more than 5 users at once.
- It ran a nationwide ad-campaign asking people to “spread joys, not rumours”.
- It is also actively banning 2 million accounts that send a high volume of messages immediately after signing up.
Carl Woog, WhatsApp’s global head of communication said that what the GOI wants is not possible today as per the current end-to-end encryption that WhatsApp uses. It requires WhatsApp to re-architect and re-engineered the service. As per Woog, this will also make the platform a different product. Consequently, WhatsApp will not remain a private communication platform for its users by keeping a record of their phone numbers.
Is Indian Government right to demand a backdoor to WhatsApp?
Critics say complying with the proposed rules will not just weaken such platforms in India but also have global effects. Other governments will surely start making similar demands of local offices. This makes it difficult and challenging for the company to maintain different apps for every country. Moreover, apart from the debate, it undoes millions of users in India who were guaranteed privacy by WhatsApp.
That said, the Indian government is keen to find a possible solution. And thus tackle the heinous menace of mob violence triggered by rumour factories on WhatsApp. It has stated that its aim is to check the spread through misleading messages rather than to shut down or disrupt the platforms. The government demands a fact-checking and quality control mechanism to curtail the misleading messages spreading at their platform. But for WhatsApp that changes the privacy promise to their customers.