Under fire over fake and provocative messages being circulated on its platform, WhatApp today began an awareness campaign to help users identify and prevent the spread of false information, hoax messages and fake news.
With rumours on Whatsapp triggering lynching in parts of the country, the Facebook-owned messaging service brought out full-page advertisement in leading newspapers, first in the series of its user awareness drive, giving “easy tips” to decide if information received is, indeed, true.
IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had last week asked for greater accountability from WhatsApp, saying that the government will not tolerate any misuse of the platform to spread fake messages designed to “provoke” and “instigate” people.
In response, WhatsApp had informed the government that fake news, misinformation and hoaxes can be checked by the government, civil society and technology companies “working together”.
Reiterating the message today, it said: “To fight fake news, we all need to work together – technology companies, the government and community groups. If you see something that’s not true, make people aware and help stop the spread.”
The latest campaign by WhatsApp also outlines ways to spot false information including identifying forwarded messages (a feature that will be rolled out starting this week), coaxing users to “double check” on information using multiple sources to establish authenticity of a news or a photograph.
The full-page advertisements splashed across major dailies also nudged users to question information that is meant to instil anger or fear and to think twice before sharing such messages.
It cautions the users to “look out for messages that look different” and to watch out for signs like spelling mistakes in order to determine accuracy of information circulated.
“Be thoughtful about what you share….If you are not sure of the source or concerned that the information may be untrue, think twice before sharing,” it said, adding that accompanying links seemingly of well-known websites should also be scoured for unusual characters and spelling mistakes to establish authenticity.
WhatsApp also reminded its users that fake news “often” goes viral and just because “a message is shared many times, does not make it true”.
When contacted, a WhatsApp spokesperson said: “This morning we are starting an education campaign in India on how to spot fake news and rumours. Our first step is placing newspaper advertisements across the country in English, Hindi, and several other languages.
The company will build on such efforts going forward, the spokesperson added.
The WhatsApp spokesperson did not reply to a specific question on the number of accounts that have been blocked so far this year in India or globally for circulating fake news.
“We ban accounts based on user reports and by the manner in which messages are sent. We use machine learning to identify accounts sending a high volume of messages and we are constantly working to improve our ability to stop unwanted automated messages” the spokesperson added.
Rumours on WhatsApp have triggered a spate of incidents involving mob fury, a recent one being lynching of five men on the suspicion of being child-lifters in Maharashtra’s Rainpada village of Dhule district.
The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology on July 2 had written to WhatsApp asking it to take immediate steps to prevent the circulation of false information and provocative content, and emphasised that the company “cannot evade accountability and responsibility”.
Outlining steps it has taken to curb abuse of its platform, WhatsApp — in its response to a notice sent by India’s IT Ministry — had said last week 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.
With India being its biggest market with over 200 million users, the Facebook Inc-owned messenger service had asserted that it responds to “valid” law enforcement requests in investigating crimes.
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.
Without specifying whether it will stop services of any person found to be spreading fake news, the company had said it has made changes on group chats to prevent the spread of unwanted information.