First, the government erred, then, the SM-IM ecosystem erred, by not just yielding to this demand, but also by taking self-policing to the extremes.
First, the government erred. When it should have taken swift and strict action against those spreading fake news/posts that could spark communal tensions and the mobs that lynched people on the basis of such messages/posts, it told the social media (SM) companies and instant-messaging (IM) services—the Facebooks and the WhatsApps—to proactively curb such posts/messages. Then, the SM-IM ecosystem erred, by not just yielding to this demand, but also by taking self-policing to the extremes.
As per The Indian Express, as part of its measures to crack down on fake news on its platform, WhatsApp limited the number of chats to which a forward could be sent from one account to five, and then followed it by “blocking” numbers, including “official” numbers of political parties to check mass forwards. Parties, as per the IE report, say this has impacted their digital outreach strategy adversely, in an unfair manner since many people sign-up for voluntary updates from the party via the number.
While trying to prevent the spread of fake news/communally sensitive content is a worthy pursuit, this shouldn’t be done through self-policing. In the absence of the government laying down transparent rules for regulating content and outreach, a WhatsApp can be pressured into self-policing content that could amount to repressive censoring. The government, and not just this one, could put pressure on WhatsApp to crack down on healthy criticism tomorrow and, with the large Indian market in mind, the company could, grudgingly or otherwise, oblige. Relying on user-reports to flag objectionable content isn’t a great idea either.
A troll army—bots added for good measure—could simply game the system to suppress alternative/dissenting views. The government should instead pin the responsibility on those who use a WhatsApp to spread this. To that end, it needs to set clear, nuanced rules on what kind of posts need to be acted against, keeping in mind that the rules shouldn’t lend themselves to censorship of differing opinions.