WhatsApp is under fire, and the Facebook-owned messaging app is trying to tackle some of this with full-fledged advertisements in newspapers on how to fight ‘False Information’. The reason behind this PR exercise is a number of stories around lynchings, mob violence across India, allegedly because of videos that were widely shared on the messaging platform.
But fighting misinformation on social media is not easy despite WhatsApp’s well-meaning tips. One new feature is that every forwarded message now has a label: Forwarded. This will supposedly let users know that the message was not really written by the person who sent it, and it might be false. I’m not sure how labelling a message as forwarded will solve the problem, because people have been forwarding these irrespective of whatever the message claimed. And people have been reading and forwarding them again knowing fully well that these are forwards in the first place.
Forwarded messages are the norm in family, school groups in India, and even private chats. Many of these messages, be it about a miracle Ayurvedic cure for cancer or a political message, come with a line that really says it all ‘Forwarded as received,’ or ‘Please share widely’. So yes, our parents, uncles, relatives, friends, who get these forwards are happy to send them along to a hundred others on their contact list without verifying. Maybe hoping that someone else will do that bit for them.
Some of these ‘viral messages’ are very clearly political propaganda. For instance, at the time of demonetisation, a popular message going viral on WhatsApp was that the new Rs 2000 note has ‘nano-GPS’ chip in it. Then there was one about how the present government has made it legal for a woman to kill a potential rapist and she will face no jail-time. I forget the exact contents, but the message was clearly a hoax.
The problem of misinformation is grave, and the acts of violence prove that the consequences go beyond the world of social media. But while it is easy to blame WhatsApp or Facebook or any other popular app, it is important to remember that this misinformation is not limited to social media alone. Even mainstream media in India does it. Let’s not forget television channels running shows explaining the Rs 2000 note and its ‘nano-GPS chip. Or just look at how the Burari deaths in Delhi are being covered, with rumours, superstitions all being given prominent time space on mainstream television channels.
But with these lynching, the focus is clearly on WhatsApp. The Indian government has even come out to warn the platform. Many are also questioning why the messaging app cannot do more to stop the spread of these false messages. Directly or indirectly, the popularity of WhatsApp has become its curse. For many it is the platform, and not those committing the acts of violence that need to be made the focus and held accountable.
To fix the blame on WhatsApp or its users alone is to a myopic view of the problem. As an Indianexpress investigation which profiled those who were part of the mob, showed there are several, socio-economic and cultural factors involved in these lynchings. In the Maharashtra Dhule case for instance, over 15 of the 25 involved in the violence were under the influence of alcohol, only four have passed higher secondary school.
In such a scenario, where education is lacking, messages via WhatsApp or any other app are hard to verify. Even WhatsApp’s ad campaign, written in English which most people in rural India and even in metro cities might not even understand, fails because for many this message might be incomprehensible. The idea of verifying something that you received say from your father or your friend via a message does not exist for many users in India.
WhatsApp is not wrong to say the onus is on users when they forward a message, especially those who have the means of doing so. But the violence and anger that we are seeing needs deeper examination; to pin the blame on one app is simplistic and hurried. ‘Forwarded as received’ might be part of the problem on WhatsApp in India, but that does not mean we turn a blind eye to the others.