The government today shot off another notice to WhatsApp asking it to come out with effective solutions to curb the menace of fake news beyond just labelling forwards. It also warned the company that mediums used for propagation of rumours are liable to be treated as ‘abettors’ and can face legal consequences if they remain “mute spectators”. Facebook-owned WhatsApp has been under fire from the Indian government over fake news and false information being circulated on its messaging platform. Such messages have incited mob-fury, triggering multiple cases of lynching across the country.
The government had in the past too issued a stern warning to the company to clamp down on hoax messages designed to “provoke” and “instigate” people. “When rumours and fake news get propagated by mischief mongers, the medium used for such propagation cannot evade responsibility and accountability. If they remain mute spectators they are liable to be treated as abettors and thereafter face consequent legal action,” the IT Ministry said in a statement today.
The ministry said it has approached WhatsApp to bring more effective solutions to the table, to ensure greater “accountability and facilitate enforcement of law” beyond the existing efforts towards labelling forwards and identifying fake news. “It has been conveyed to them in unmistakable terms that it is a very serious issue which deserves a more sensitive response,” the ministry said.
Law and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad today informed the Rajya Sabha that he will hold discussion with stakeholders, including political parties, to evolve a policy to deal with the misuse of social media. Prasad had earlier told WhatsApp that the platform “cannot evade accountability and responsibility”.
In response, WhatsApp announced a new feature to let its users identify the messages that are forwarded. The messaging service also brought out full-page advertisement in leading newspapers, first in the series of its user awareness campaign, giving “easy tips” to decide if information received is indeed true. At the same time, WhatsApp had informed the Centre that fake news, misinformation and hoaxes can be checked by the government, civil society and technology companies “working together”.
Outlining steps it has taken to curb abuse of its platform, WhatsApp — in its response to the first notice sent by the IT Ministry — had said that it has the ability to prevent spam but since it cannot see the content of private messages, blocking can be done only based on user reports.
WhatsApp had also told the government that it is “horrified by these terrible acts of violence” and its strategy to deal with the situation involves giving people the controls and information they need to stay safe while working pro-actively to prevent misuse of the service. Rumours on WhatsApp have sparked off a spate of incidents involving mob fury, including one where five men were lynched on the suspicion of being child lifters in Maharashtra’s Rainpada village of Dhule district.
More recently, a man was beaten to death, while three others were injured after a mob attacked them suspecting them to be child-lifters, near Bidar in Karnataka. The Supreme Court, earlier this week, asked parliament to consider enacting a new law to effectively deal with incidents of mob lynching, saying “horrendous acts of mobocracy” cannot be allowed to become a new norm.