The ministry of electronics and IT (MeitY), which has been pressing messaging app WhatsApp to devise technological measures to contain spread of rumours and fake news, is now in the process of drafting detailed guidelines as to how social media platforms should react in situations where rumour-based content threatens to disturb law and order. The development comes after WhatsApp, upon the insistence of the government, brought in changes to prevent the spread of rumours that may lead to violence.
For instance, it has limited forwarding messages to five chats at a time and even removed the quick forward button next to media messages. The popular messaging app, which has over 200 million subscribers in India, has also added a feature that labels forwarded messages, thus distinguishing them from the original ones. However, the government is not fully satisfied, as it wants WhatsApp to enable it to trace the source of the rumours, something that is difficult as messages are encrypted. Though the exact nature of guidelines being formulated by the government could not be ascertained, sources said it will entail steps on how to spread awareness regarding fake news and propaganda.
The ministry of electronics and IT is working with other ministries, including ministry of home affairs, department of telecommunications, etc, on framing these guidelines, which are expected in the next few months. Sources said the guidelines will be in the form of instructions for intermediaries, or social media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, etc.
“We are exploring all possible measures to control hate messages and a set of guidelines is one of them. The government is clear that end-to-end encryption should not be an excuse for no transparency and transparency should not be an excuse for snooping by the state. So we want to maintain the balance, but at the same time ensure that law and order is not disturbed. What we want is for intermediaries to trace such messages. We want them to give us a solution for this. We are only asking them for transparency,” an official involved in the process told FE.
Analysts say though WhatsApp has tried to come up with some solutions and is continuously trying to bring in improvements, a better approach would be for all parties to sit together and arrive at solutions. A case in point is the recent presidential election in Mexico where WhatsApp worked closely with a news agency to check rumours. In India, the platform is working with Boom Live on similar lines. Another case in point can be the Hyderabad Police’s case, where it has created a WhatsApp account to check crime-related rumours.
Put simply, one of the solutions could be that WhatsApp adds on its app phone numbers of various fact-checking agencies where subscribers could send forwarded messages to checks their veracity. Last month, IT and law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had told Parliament that the government is serious about checking the circulation of provocative and explosive content on social media. He had said that intermediaries will have to ensure that all malicious messages circulated through their services are traced and their source of origin identified by law-enforcement agencies.
“Media platforms should locate grievance officers in India to receive grievances in real-time basis and also inform law-enforcement agencies. They will have to ensure that their platforms do not become vehicles of promoting hatred, terrorism, money laundering, mob violence and rumour mongering. Take prompt action or be liable to law of abetment,” he had said in Parliament. The minister had also said that the government will initiate measures to increase awareness about fake news with support of all stakeholders.