A day after the Centre wrote to WhatsApp seeking action against unverified information circulating on its platform, the company on Wednesday said it was working proactively to prevent misuse of its messaging platform and detailed its approach to tackle the “challenge”.
Responding to a letter from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY), WhatsApp announced that it would “soon” launch a new feature which will highlight forwarded messages.
The company also listed non-technological solutions that include collaborating with academics, police and fact-checking organisations, public safety ad campaigns, educational material on misinformation and other measures to meet the challenge.
“We have been testing a new label in India that highlights when a message has been forwarded versus composed by the sender. This could serve as an important signal for recipients to think twice before forwarding messages because it lets a user know if content they received was written by the person they know or a potential rumour from someone else,” WhatsApp told the government adding that they planned to “launch this new feature soon”.
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Additionally, the company said it was “working to improve” its capability to “stop unwanted automated messages” and spam through its platform. “We do have the ability to prevent spam, which includes some of the misinformation that can create mistrust and potentially violence. Because we cannot see the content of messages being sent over WhatsApp we block messages based on user reports and by the manner in which they are sent,” the company told the Centre.
“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.”
Over the past year, at least two dozen people have been killed in mob violence linked to hate crimes and rumours on child-lifting — which circulated on social media — that have increased over the past few weeks.
“We believe that false news, misinformation and the spread of hoaxes are issues best tackled collectively: by government, civil society and technology companies working together,” WhatsApp said in its reply to the Centre.
IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on Wednesday urged the company to realise its announcements soon. “While we welcome (Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp) completely, they are also making a commercial success of us. (They) must remain accountable, responsible, and vigilant,” he said.
According to WhatsApp, almost 25 per cent of its users in India were not in groups, the majority of groups in India have less than 10 people and nine in 10 messages are still sent from just one person to another.
WhatsApp has also said that messages on its platform are encrypted but the company does have access to metadata, which is information about the messages including contact lists and mobile phone numbers.
The company said that it blocks spam based on user reports and examines this metadata.
At the MEITY press conference on Wednesday, Prasad said that the circulation of rumours “designed to provoke and instigate … can be handled by the application of technology.” Prasad said that WhatsApp must work closely with his ministry, the Home Ministry, and the state police apparatus.