With the government pressing it to devise technological measures to contain the spread of rumours, messaging app WhatsApp on Friday said that it is launching a test service to limit forwarding messages to five users/groups at a time. Further, it will remove the quick forward button next to media messages.
The development comes after the popular messaging app, which has over 200 million subscribers in India, earlier this month added a feature which labelled forwarded messages, thus distinguishing them from original ones. It also brought out full-page advertisements in newspapers with tips on how to spot misinformation. “We believe that these changes — which we’ll continue to evaluate — will help keep WhatsApp the way it was designed to be: A private messaging app,” the company said in a statement. “In India — where people forward more messages, photos, and videos than any other country in the world — we’ll also test a lower limit of five chats at once and we’ll remove the quick forward button next to media messages,” the statement said.
Analysts said that though WhatsApp has tried to come up with some solutions and is continuously trying to bring in improvements, a better approach would be if all the parties concerned sit together and work on solutions. A case in point is the recent presidential election in Mexico where WhatsApp worked closely with a news agency wherein users sent rumours to its WhatsApp account and were given information on what was accurate and what was false. In India it 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 on crime-related rumours.
Put simply, one of the solution could be that WhatsApp adds on its app the phone numbers of various fact-checking agencies where subscribers could forward forwarded messages to checks their veracity. WhatsApp is adding and testing new measures to check spread of rumours and fake news as it has recently come under pressure from the government with certain lynching incidents happening that were based on rumours over the messaging app.
More than 20 people have been killed by mobs in the past two months across the country after being accused of kidnapping and other crimes in viral messages circulated on WhatsApp. On Thursday the ministry of electronics and information technology in a strongly worded statement had expressed displeasure at what WhatsApp was doing to curb the menace and asked for “more effective solutions” that can bring in “accountability and facilitate enforcement of law” as well as bring in “traceability and accountability when a provocative or inflammatory message is detected”.
This was the second notice the ministry had sent in a span of three weeks, asking WhatsApp to act. The statement said that it has been conveyed to the company “in unmistakable terms” that it is a very serious issue that deserves a more sensitive response.
“When rumours and fake news get propagated by mischief mongers, the medium used for such propagation cannot evade responsibility and accountability,” it said, adding that if WhatsApp chose to remain a mute spectator the government would treat it as “abettors” of crime and begin legal action against it.
“We built WhatsApp as a private messaging app — a simple, secure, and reliable way to communicate with friends and family. And as we’ve added new features, we’ve been careful to try and keep that feeling of intimacy, which people say they love. We believe that these changes (introduced on Friday) — which we’ll continue to evaluate — will help keep WhatsApp the way it was designed to be. We are deeply committed to your safety and privacy which is why WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted, and we’ll continue to improve our app with features like this one,” WhatsApp said on Friday.