WhatsApp is all set to formally launch payments services in India. However, recent incidents at the Facebook-owned company’s biggest market have been ominous. Fake rumours on child-lifting gangs spreading through the chatting platform has led to the killing of as many as 29 people in several states of the country in recent weeks.
While these killings bring to light the worst of what the misuse of technology can bring to society, WhatsApp’s failure to curb the spread of fake news has also raised question marks on its seriousness to maintain credibility.
On Tuesday, the Indian government formally warned the Facebook-owned company for abuse of their platform. A Ministry of Electronics & IT release said, “Instances of lynching of innocent people have been noticed recently because of large number of irresponsible and explosive messages filled with rumours and provocation are being circulated on WhatsApp.”
The ministry said that while the law and order machinery is taking steps to apprehend the culprits, the abuse of a platform like WhatsApp for repeated circulation of such provocative content are a matter of deep concern for the government.
“Deep disapproval of such developments has been conveyed to the senior management of WhatsApp and they have been advised that necessary remedial measures should be taken to prevent proliferation of these fake and at times motivated/sensational messages,” the ministry said in the statement.
“The Government has also directed that spread of such messages should be immediately contained through the application of appropriate technology,” it added.
The government warned that WhatsApp cannot evade accountability and asked it to take “immediate action”. “It has also been pointed out that such platform cannot evade accountability and responsibility specially when good technological inventions are abused by some miscreants who resort to provocative messages which lead to spread of violence.,” the government said.
Responding to the warning, WhatsApp today told the IT ministry that it is concerned about the safety of people. “WhatsApp cares deeply about people’s safety, which is why we designed our app with security in mind…We also respond to valid law enforcement requests to help them investigate crimes. And soon, we will start an engagement program with law enforcement officials around India so they are familiar with our approach and how we can be helpful.”
Trust is the driving force behind all money-related transactions. WhatsApp Payments would need to pass this trust test. In a bid to assure consumers, WhatsApp had recently said users would get 24-hour customer support for its UPI-based services.
As per a Bloomberg report, WhatsApp will partner HDFC Bank Ltd., ICICI Bank Ltd. and Axis Bank Ltd to process the transfers. The SBI will likely join after having all necessary systems in place.
WhatsApp Payments is pitted to disrupt the already dominant Chinese giant Alibaba-backed PayTm and Google Tez. The company hopes its monopoly in chat (with around 200 million Indians using the platform) would help power its UPI-based payments service.
However, the chat giant’s failure to control spread of rumours and fake news would render WhatsApp Payments vulnerable to high risks right from the beginning.
In its response to the government today, WhatsApp listed steps it is taking to stop the menace:
- WhatsApp said it is testing a new label in India that highlights when a message has been forwarded, and not composed by the sender.
- The company further said it plans to run a public safety ad campaign and will soon release educational materials about misinformation, conduct news literacy workshops. All of these look fine on paper, but spate of recent violence require the company act faster before another person loses life.
On its part, the government has reacted to the response by WhatsApp. Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said companies like WhatsApp that are making commercial gains in India have to remain accountable and vigilant to prevent abuse of their platforms for spread of dangerous and provocative messages.
“If in any state, any part, on a particular subject, if there is a movement of large volumes of messages on WhatsApp, it is not rocket science that can’t be discovered by application of technology,” PTI quoted Prasad as saying.