Under pressure to stop rumours and fake news triggering a spate of horrific lynching incidents, WhatsApp today announced curbs on its service in India including limiting forwarding messages to five chats at once. In a statement, Whatsapp said it is launching a test to limit forwarding on the app. In addition, it said it will “remove the quick forward button next to media messages.” “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.
Whatsapp, which had added a feature to let people forward a message to multiple chats at once a few years ago, had earlier this month launched a ‘forward label’ to identify messages which are not original and have been forwarded. More than 20 people have been killed by mobs in the past two months across the country after being accused of child kidnapping and other crimes in viral messages circulated on WhatsApp.
“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,” it said. Yesterday, the government in a strongly worded press 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 is the second notice the government has sent in a span of three weeks, asking Whatsapp to act. In the statement, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said that it has been conveyed to the company “in unmistakable terms” that it is a very serious issue which 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 added.
The ministry warned Whatsapp of treating it as “abettors” of crime if it chooses to remain “mute spectators” and would face consequent legal action. Under pressure, it first announced new features to help users identify messages that have been forwarded and then brought full-page advertisements with tips on how to spot misinformation.
“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,” it said today. “We believe that these changes (introduced today) – which we’ll continue to evaluate – will help keep WhatsApp the way it was designed to be…,” it added.
“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,” it added. The messages on Whatsapp are said to be end-to-end encrypted and the labelling of forwarded messages, announced on July 10, and today’s additional measures are its attempt to manage fake news and the spread of rumours.