Last week I got a rare WhatsApp forward. It had no political or religious agenda. It showed rotten mangoes in what seemed like a factory conveyor belt. The voice in Tamil had a simple communication: “This is what goes into mango juice, so don’t buy AA and BB brands”. The message is strong enough and it is tough for many people not to share something like this. But they miss the point that the video has no context: Is this shot in India? Is this a belt that shows mangoes going in or going our of the production line? Is this the final raw material or presorting? These are the questions we should ask, but don’t when it comes to social media.
While WhatsApp is under a lot of heat over how viral messages, almost always fake or wrong, result in incidents of violence across the country, we seem to forget the impact a lot of these messages are having on the Indian economy as whole. WhatsApp is full of unverified videos and messages that claim a certain brand is adulterated or has low quality. There are a lot of videos that show how the gold you buy is impure or just low grade. Are all these messages issued in public interest? Could there be an agenda behind such messages, clearly targeting a specific brand or company? We certainly don’t care before we share these to our groups. Yes, some of these might be true, but there is no doubting that each of these messages take a toll on the brands and products mentioned.
WhatsApp is grappling with a very unique problem. It is not as if rumours are new or a creation of the technology-heavy times we live in. They have always been there. But WhatsApp’s issue is that of an encrypted platform that is working on scale—there are over 200 million users in India alone. It is a problem we have not seen before, nor know a fix for. How can WhatsApp fix something it can’t see? Of course, over the past few weeks it has brought in features that offer more control for group admins, tags for forwarded messages and has even opened access to fact-checking agencies on the platform. But these are not great fixes. Considering that many groups are created with an agenda and thus giving control to the admin might not be the solution, controlling the admin might be. And how will tagging forwards help, when most of forwards already come with a text on top saying ‘forwarded as received’. It is also trying to spread awareness via advertisements and even an award for researchers in the field, but the issue is more in the frontiers of technology where literacy might not be a factor. This is why videos go viral faster. They don’t have the barrier of language and people don’t miss the context.
WhatsApp is clear that it will not tamper with the encrypted nature of its platform, which it sees as its core. However, it could start looking at some patterns or abnormal behaviour even within this encrypted universe. Yes, it won’t be easy, but it should be doing more and soon.
Frankly, there are many more encrypted messaging platforms out there. It is just that none of them are at the scale WhatsApp has been able to achieve. So the spread of misinformation is limited. The important part about WhatsApp is the scale and not some technology the Facebook-owned company has implemented. And this scale comes from the people who use it. And that is the real problem, not the platform, not its technology, not its encryption. If we can kill another human being on the basis of a random unverified video or text that came on a messaging platform, then we know where the actual problem is. It is just that we are forwarding the issue for someone else to solve.