Although word of mouth played a key role in spreading the rumours that set off mob violence which led to the lynching of five persons in Dhule of Maharashtra, it was social media that spread most of the rumours leading to a recent spate of lynchings in various parts of the country, including in districts next door. Of all social media platforms, WhatsApp is proving the most challenging for investigators trying to track the source of such rumours and formulate a response. What makes WhatsApp different?
What are the various platforms on which rumours spread?
All social media platforms struggle with rumours and misinformation. These are spread through posts as well as direct messages.
Which ones leave the most difficult trail to follow?
Messaging services by nature do not leave a trail for specific messages. From SMS to Facebook Instant Messenger, it is very difficult to track where a message originated if has been forwarded many times. However, with most of these services, the information is with the parent server and police can request the company for access to information, such as IP address, for investigation.
With WhatsApp, it is more complex. Everything on the platform is encrypted end-to-end at the device level — all data is stored on the device and not on servers. So, WhatsApp does not know what is being discussed. The privacy notice on WhatsApp’s website says, “Once your messages… are delivered, they are deleted from our servers. Your messages are stored on your own device. If a message cannot be delivered immediately (for example, if you are offline), we may keep it on our servers for up to 30 days… If a message is still undelivered after 30 days, we delete it. To improve performance and deliver media messages more efficiently… we may retain that content on our servers for a longer period of time.”
So, is it impossible to track the source of a message in WhatsApp?
Police officers in Maharashtra said that in the few cases in which they have tracked down the source, the posts had only been shared a couple of times. They cited one case in Mumbai, where they followed a short chain of sender-receiver. In other words, no technology to identify the source came into play. In an example that showed the futility of trying to track the source of a message, Mumbai police failed to locate Aditya Rafukiya, 14, missing since December 2015, even after his family spotted him in the background of a WhatsApp video gone viral.
“For things that are widely shared on WhatsApp, it is next to impossible to identify the source. This is especially so since they started stripping of metadata,” said Inspector General (cyber crime), Maharashtra Police, Brijesh Singh.
What is metadata, and how is it “stripped”?
Metadata is defined as data about other data, and includes information such as user name, device info and log-in time. Each file has a certain amount of metadata, which is embedded when the file is created. WhatsApp removes this, too, when it compresses a video or photo. This is called stripping.
Has WhatsApp sought to address misuse of its platform?
A WhatsApp spokesperson said that the company is trying to learn more about the way misinformation spreads by looking into the metadata that the company has access to. The spokesperson mentioned ongoing research on reports of spam to see when misinformation is being sent intentionally or unintentionally. The company is formulating ways to tackle those who use the platform maliciously. The spokesperson said the solution will require collaboration beyond WhatsApp, including the Indian government, as the issue is a “public health problem”.
Will WhatsApp look afresh at the way it runs its services?
WhatsApp has reiterated that the nature of its messaging platform, which is encrypted messaging, will continue. The spokesperson stressed that the company is not aiming to prevent content from being published on the platform realtime because of the high value the company places on privacy in conversations.
Does that mean there will be no technology fix?
At the moment, WhatsApp is working on a mix of in-platform fixes and off-platform intervention. Within the platform it is offering more control for group administrators, flagging forwarded content and offering resources like fact-checking websites for verifying content. Off-platform, it is expected to initiate measures to educate people about the perils of misinformation and ways to identify them. The app’s forward label (which marks forwarded messages) is in beta testing, while a new app update allows administrators to choose a setting that only gives the administrators permission to publish in a specific group.
How have police dealt with such stumbling blocks?
“We can book administrators of WhatsApp groups where they are found endorsing/spreading misinformation,” said Maharashtra SP (cyber cell) Balsingh Rajput. “The admin has no control over what other people in the group will post in the group and hence cannot be liable for action. He should, however, inform any member posting misinformation about the consequences and restrain them. The admin should inform police if any one is spreading fake news.”
In Telangana, SP Rema Rajeshwari took her own initiative against rumours of child lifting, travelling from village to village with musicians to tell people not to believe in such rumours, according to a report in Bloomberg.
How have other countries responded to the spread of misinformation?
Some have banned it from time to time. Freedom House, a US-based government-funded NGO, has reported WhatsApp was disrupted in 12 of 65 countries — Turkey, Zimbabwe, Azerbaijan, Qatar, UAE, Bangladesh, China, Morroco, Egypt, China, Saudi Arabia — in 2016 and 2017. Uganda has introduced a social media tax to check online gossip, among other objectives, and on Sunday it made social media inaccessible to those who have not paid the tax, Quartz reported. In Mexico, private groups collaborated to set up Verificado 2018, a fact-checking initiative, that tries to intervene in the spread of fake news on WhatsApp, particularly during the recent elections, according to Harvard University’s journalism initiative Nieman Foundation.