WhatsApp is a messaging service, asking it to stop rumours means telling it to snoop on users; should telcos scan SMSs?
Given that WhatsApp messages were used to spread rumours that, eventually, led to several lynchings in different parts of the country, it is not surprising that the government wrote to WhatsApp conveying its “deep disapproval” and asked it to take “necessary remedial measures” and “immediate action” to stem the flow of misinformation using “the application of appropriate technology”. And, later, when WhatsApp’s reply said that the government, civil society and technology companies needed to work together to check the menace, IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said, “use, abuse and misuse of your platform, particularly which leads to the killing of innocents, is not acceptable… while we welcome WhatsApp completely, it must remain accountable and answerable”.
Asking WhatsApp to take action appears just an extension of the demand by various countries asking its parent, Facebook, to stop the spread of fake news on its platform. Taking down fake news, using sophisticated algorithms or by working with fact-checkers, however, is not foolproof since, at any point in time, any user can post anything—whether it gets taken down depends on how fast it is reported by users and what Facebook’s legal team advises. Indeed, when Facebook tackles fake news, the news is not always removed, it is ‘downranked’ so that it does not appear in the news feed, but it can still be seen on the user’s Facebook page. But, unlike Facebook or Twitter, WhatsApp does not use an algorithm to decide the sequence of posts on your timeline; WhatsApp messages are delivered to you on the basis of when they were sent.
It is also important to note WhatsApp is not a public platform like Facebook: the messages sent on it are not just secret, they are encrypted and the keys user-generated to ensure privacy. So, when the government asks WhatsApp to stop the flow of misinformation, it is essentially asking it to snoop on users—at a time when the government itself is in the process of coming out with laws to protect privacy, this sounds contradictory. Indeed, were WhatsApp to attempt to snoop on messages, assuming it could, the courts will be inundated with petitions challenging this. Revealing message contents under a court order are one thing—again, assuming WhatsApp has the keys—but doing a broad sweep of all messages is quite another.
Asking WhatsApp to take action is akin to asking Bharti Airtel, Vodafone or RJio to ensure no rumours are spread using their SMS services and that this needs to be checked by “application of appropriate technology”. WhatsApp is preferred today, but it could be another tomorrow.Instead of an approach that expects only WhatsApp to help identify those spreading the rumours, the government and WhatsApp have to work together; a WhatsApp, or any other messaging service, though, is not going to be able to give the government advance notices on what people are messaging.
The government has to catch criminals the hard way, using old-fashioned police-work—as part of this process, if court orders can be got, a WhatsApp will reveal whatever information it can, say, phone numbers and locations of users; ensuring all such firms have local servers will make it easier for law enforcement agencies to get the data they want. Intelligence agencies and the police have to be trained to quickly spot inflammatory trends/messages and respond in real time on Facebook, Twitter, even WhatsApp; since politicians very often fan the flames of hatred, they too must face police action. Investigators need to be able to track down IP addresses, to take down bots, detect automated messages, and take any other action at the earliest.
Meanwhile, WhatsApp has already tried to come up with some solutions, but more can be worked on once all parties sit down and come up with more. A new feature being tried highlights when a message has been forwarded instead of being composed by the sender and that, in a sense, alerts people to the possibility that this needs further verification. Similarly, in the recent presidential election in Mexico, WhatsApp worked closely with a news agency, 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 this; the Hyderabad police has created a WhatsApp account to check on crime-related rumours. So, WhatsApp could, on its app, have the phone numbers of various fact-checking agencies—Boom Live, the police, news agencies—and people could just add them to their phone book and at anytime, a forwarded message can be forwarded to these agencies for a quick fact-check. A message that says president X has been killed can, for instance, be matched against a Reuters feed, but, if a message says two people have skinned a cow in a remote village or are kidnapping children, this requires 24×7 help from the local police.
In its attempt to crack down on various types of hate crime, the government needs the help of tech firms like WhatsApp or various telcos, but they are a small part of the story. In most cases of lynching, the local police know who the miscreants are and the local politicians that are giving them cover; indeed, many politicians have no qualms about making such statements in public either. Fixing this requires the government—both central and states—to crack down in a strong and visible manner, and not to get distracted chasing a WhatsApp.