Facebook’s WhatsApp is working closely with Reliance Jio to spread awareness of false messages, weeks after the Indian telecoms operator opened up the messaging service to tens of millions of customers using its cheap internet-enabled phone. Jio this month gave its more than 25 million JioPhone customers, many of them first-time internet users, access to WhatsApp at a time when the messaging service is battling false and incendiary texts and videos circulating on its platform.
Reliance Chairman Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man, launched the JioPhone last year at a refundable deposit of Rs 1,500 ($20.60). The device is internet enabled but didn’t initially allow the use of WhatsApp or have several popular smartphone features. All new users of the JioPhone get educational material that tells them about spotting a forwarded WhatsApp message and encourages them to share messages thoughtfully, WhatsApp spokesman Carl Woog told Reuters. “We are working closely with Jio to continue our education campaign for WhatsApp users,” Woog said.
In India’s smaller towns and villages, deep-seated prejudices, often based on caste and religion, and cut-price mobile data can aggravate the so-called fake news problem. Such regions are a key market for cheap devices such as the JioPhone. More than 30 people have died this year in mob violence triggered by vitriolic messages on social media and WhatsApp, according to unofficial estimates, and police have previously told Reuters that minorities have been targeted in some remote and rural regions. That has prompted New Delhi to call on WhatsApp to take immediate action to “end this menace”.
WhatsApp has already taken some steps to quell the rise of fake news. It has launched print and radio ad campaigns to educate users and introduced new features on the app including limiting message forwards as well as the labelling of forwarded messages. It has also partnered with Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), a New Delhi-based non-profit organisation, to spread digital literacy in India’s towns and cities. DEF will host a workshop in the eastern Indian city of Ranchi this week, WhatsApp’s Woog said. WhatsApp also plans to expand its outreach programme to existing JioPhone users. Reliance Jio did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
With more than 200 million users, India is a key market for WhatsApp but one where it has had to delay the official launch of its payments services due to the country’s push on data localisation. WhatsApp is currently looking for an India chief and a policy head for the country. It last month appointed a grievance officer for Indian users at its Menlo Park, California headquarters, like other global tech firms whose grievance officers sit outside of India. India has, however, said it will toughen up its laws including pushing US tech giants to have their grievance officers in India.