In India, chat messaging app WhatsApp is stuck in multiple court cases relating to the spread of misinformation, encrypted messages and fake news. New research on the messaging app’s influence on public discourse further reaffirms the government’s hard stance on the power of WhatsApp with 400 Mn monthly active users in India.
A study was conducted by researchers at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US to examine if WhatsApp can control such issues through techniques and features such as forward limits and forwarded tags.
The researchers noted that WhatsApp was extensively abused to spread unfounded rumours and create disinformation campaigns during recent elections in Brazil and India. The research emphasised that the closed nature of the app, in addition to the ease of transferring multimedia and sharing information to big groups make WhatsApp unique among other platforms.
The researchers, however, noted that WhatsApp has been deploying measures to mitigate this problem. The solutions adopted by WhatsApp include reducing the limit for forwarding a message to at most five users at once.
The study noted that using an epidemiological model and real data gathered from WhatsApp in Brazil, India and Indonesia, it has assessed the impact of limiting virality features in this kind of network. The researchers found that the current efforts deployed by WhatsApp can offer significant delays on the information spread, but they are ineffective in blocking the propagation of misinformation campaigns through public groups when the content has a high viral nature.
The concerns around WhatsApp first arose when misinformation and rumours led to a spate of lynchings in 2018. Known as unfortunate killings, the rage among people took the lives of people across Assam, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tripura, and West Bengal. Since then, the company has been under the line of fire and even the payments service had been put on hold.
The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) had been asking WhatsApp to devise a technological solution to trace the origin of incendiary messages circulated on its platform. The Facebook-owned company had denied the ministry’s directions stating that it would not compromise with its encryption process.
WhatsApp had continuously opposed such a tracking mechanism as it said that it would infringe on the privacy of its users. For Indian general elections earlier this year, WhatsApp along with other social media platforms and Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) submitted the “Voluntary Code of Ethics for the General Election 2019”. The company had launched a tip line too and had worked on limiting the spread of rumours through radio programmes and advertisement.