There’s good news. You’re less likely to receive annoying ‘good morning’ messages. More importantly, there’s a chance that inflammatory and fake-news forwards will spread less rapidly.
India’s 250 million WhatsApp users may soon be able to forward a message to only five people in one go.
The announcement made by the Facebook-owned messaging platform on Thursday, 19 July, is the latest solution offered by WhatsApp, post a series of warnings and notices sent by the government on the premise that incidents of mob lynching are allegedly triggered by false and provocative texts circulated on the platform.
The Quint answers all your questions regarding WhatsApp’s new policies, its updates and implications.
What Are These New Updates?
The latest in a series of WhatsApp updates is about making it more difficult to forward texts in bulk by adding more friction to the process of forwarding. This has been done in two ways:
- By limiting forwarding of text to only five people at a time. What this means is, unlike earlier when we could forward a text to fifty people at a time, now we’ll have to repeat the process ten times in order to reach the same number of people.
- By removing the forwarding shortcut next to media messages. This feature was added a few years ago. Once removed, a user will have to select a media message and tap on the forward button on the top bar, thereby adding more steps to the process.
On Thursday, WhatsApp wrote on its blog, “Today, we’re launching a test to limit forwarding that will apply to everyone using WhatsApp. In India – where people forward more messages, photos and videos than any other country in the world – we’ll also test a lower limit of five chats at once and we’ll remove the quick forward button next to media messages.”
“It is unclear whether one will be able to forward a message to a single group that might have more than five members,” a spokesperson for Software Freedom Law Centre India (SFLC.in) said.
I’m confused. Is this a Good Thing?
To begin with, this indicates that WhatsApp has taken cognisance of the fact that its platform has been grossly misused.
“It is a good step. The added friction in the forwarding process will ensure that circulating a message is now more difficult and time consuming,”said Nikhil Pahwa, founder of Medianama.
However, in his blog, Pahwa cautions that if a message seems important enough people will still forward it, friction or no friction. He writes, “The kind of messages that lead to mobs and lynchings, such as those related to kidnapping of children, rapes by a particular community/religion, etc, are such that people will, either by design or because they don’t realise they are false, forward them.”
Is That All WhatsApp Has Done?
On 10 July, WhatsApp had rolled out another feature to help users identify messages that have been forwarded. The new feature, available once you update the app, will label forwarded messages to distinguish them from one-on-one communication. This was also accompanied by full-page advertisements in newspapers to tackle the spread of misinformation.
Software Freedom Law Centre raises an important point in this context. “If WhatsApp is truly serious about tackling this menace then it should interact not just with the government but also involve civil society and technical experts,” an SFLC.in spokesperson said.
What Is Our Govt Doing About It?
The government has fired of two sternly worded letters to WhatsApp demanding that it take appropriate measures to ensure “traceability and accountability”. The Ministry of Electronics and IT, headed by Ravi Shankar Prasad, in the second letter issued on 19 July, warned the Facebook-owned messaging service that it could be treated as an “abettor” to the violence and could “face consequent legal action”.
So, Can WhatsApp Be Held Legally Responsible?
No. It is unclear on what basis the ministry intends to treat the medium for rumours or see WhatsApp as abettors, since there is no existing law that would allow them to do so. Section 79 of the Information Technology Act clearly states that intermediaries cannot be held liable where they are just a platform for communication, unless they are involved in creating the content or have been informed by the government that some specific content is illegal. WhatsApp, for instance, would fall squarely within this protection, especially since the content of messages sent on it is supposed to be encrypted.
Abetment of offences requires intent for those offences to be committed, or knowledge that assisting something is likely to lead to commission of an offence. A platform like WhatsApp would not have either and is not supposed to have any control over content sent through it, while a platform like Facebook can only possibly be considered an abettor after some third party makes a complaint and it fails to act on it.
What About Moral Responsibility?
Good question. Just because WhatsApp cannot be held legally responsible does not mean they can shirk off responsibility.
Recently, WhatsApp officials met with the Election Commission of India to assure the authorities of its commitment to fighting fake news in the run-up to the state elections and 2019 general elections. According to reports, senior officials of the messaging platform had said that they would employ techniques to filter out spam messages.
Akriti Bopanna, Program Officer at Center for Internet and Society, said that WhatsApp’s model employed during the recent Mexican elections could be useful in India as well. “As part of their Verificado model, 90 civil society institutions had partnered with the messaging app to fact-check viral forwards and rumours.”
Aren’t We Shifting the Blame?
True. It would be misleading to think that the buck stops at WhatsApp. Doing so not only diverts attention from the fact that lynch mobs take the extreme step of killing people based on rumours, but also shifts focus from other underlying elements on the ground that organises groups to perpetrate criminal violations of the law.
“Technology is only one part of the problem. The other part is society itself that has been carrying out the lynching,” said Bopanna.
Even though Home Minister Rajnath Singh said in parliament that law and order is a state subject and not a Centre subject, the Supreme Court on Tuesday,17 July, came out strongly against the horrific trend of lynching. A three-judge bench led by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra described the trend as “horrendous acts of mobocracy”, and asked the parliament to come up with a separate law and punishment for lynching.
How WhatsApp Reacted to Govt’s Notices
- July 3: Ministry of Electronics and IT issued a notice to WhatsApp to take steps to curb “abuse on their platform”.
- July 10: WhatsApp announces a feature update saying it would label forwarded messages to distinguish them from one-on-one texts.
- July 18: Home Minister Rajnath Singh addressed the issue of lynching in Lok Sabha, saying law and order is a state subject and not a centre subject. He said, “We have asked social media service providers to apply checks to contain fake news and rumours.”
- July 19: The ministry shot off a second stern letter to WhatsApp demanding “more effective solutions” and threatened legal action against the platform. The most important part of the statement was: “If they remain mute spectators they are liable to be treated as abettors and, thereafter, face consequent legal action.”
- July 19: WhatsApp says it is testing a new feature by which Indian users can only forward a message to five people at a time.