Sure, WhatsApp Secures Privacy, But Who’s Monitoring Fake News?


If you want to avoid falling for fake news stories, here’s a handy list to keep around. 
If you want to avoid falling for fake news stories, here’s a handy list to keep around.  (Photo: Harsh Sahani/The Quint)

Sure, WhatsApp Secures Privacy, But Who’s Monitoring Fake News?

Beware of a WhatsApp group run by so-called ISIS for trapping Indian recruits.
Full fuel tanks could cause vehicular explosions in summers.

These messages could cause panic among WhatsApp users, but they’re unverified.

In the age of an information glut, WhatsApp has arguably become the greatest purveyor of fake content.

With 200 million active Indian users in the market with over 300 million smartphone users by 2016 end, WhatsApp’s reach is deep.

Also Read: Fighting Fake News: The Quint and BBC Hindi’s Co-produced Series

“WhatsApp announced that eight billion messages were shared on Diwali. Over 14 billion messages were shared on New Year’s Eve. Out of this, 3.1 billion were pictures, 700 million GIFs and 610 million videos,” said Neil Shah of Counterpoint Research.

No data is available on malicious, misleading content intended to spread rumours or hatred.

The app has end-to-end encryption, which means only the sender and the receiver can read the messages. With potential this huge and that level of encryption, critics allege WhatsApp is an endless pit for fake news, propaganda, malignant videos and messages with no oversight.

Worry

Cyber victim counsellor Debarati Halder is worried about the company’s “silence on content dealing with gruesome violence, porn and sexual assault floating on the app.”

No one knows what is being exchanged in hundreds of thousands of closed groups.

A company cannot turn a blind eye if someone is victimised by its services. If I want to report a profile, where should I go? The accused could buy another SIM if blocked.

With internet costs plummeting, the challenges for the authorities shall multiply.

Also Read: Want to Fight Fake News? Here’s a Handy Starter Kit

All for Privacy

WhatsApp claims it can’t read messages either because nothing is saved on its servers. It cites privacy and security as the reasons.

But is there anything at all that’s saved?

A spokesperson of Facebook – the company that owns WhatsApp – said they are not engaging with outsiders on the issue.

Ethical hacker Rizwan Shaikh says the company does save some information.

“WhatsApp servers save mobile numbers, IP addresses, the operating systems used and hardware IDs. Cookies are inserted on web WhatsApp meant for desktops,” said Shaikh.

Cookies are files that store favourite keywords for advertisement targeting.

Political Use

The incredible reach of this app was evident in the just-concluded UP state elections.

The BJP’s IT army numbering over 6,000 ‘volunteers’ operated over 10,000 groups to push “professionally designed” content to lure voters at the block level.

Each such group had 150-200 users. A dozen mobiles in Lucknow’s party office – each mobile running nearly a thousand groups – ran the show, said a BJP official.

Experts argue that the availability of the web version has made things much easier for spammers who are running countless groups.

“About 50 million people in UP use the app – 80 percent under 45 years of age. Our every message pushed from Lucknow had a primary reach of 2.5 million, which when forwarded, extended our reach to 10-20 million for each message,” said the official.

The Samajwadi Party operated over 4,000 groups but a party IT official conceded they couldn’t match the BJP’s firepower.

Both sides furiously deny pushing violent, hateful, communally divisive content, but the fact is that such content did find circulation.

If political parties did use WhatsApp as a campaign tool to push hate content, who was monitoring it? When the circulation of these messages is pointed out, the responsibility can always be laid on the shoulders of an “over enthusiastic soldier”.

Adding Forces

What’s adding to the phenomenon of fake news is the cheap availability of domain names with ready scripts and free social media sharing tools.

“As a result, the news moves very fast on WhatsApp and is impossible for agencies to track. It’s like a black hole,” says Vyapam scam whistle-blower Prashant Pandey.

This space is incomprehensible for many and therein reside unknown men and women designing content.

It would be safe to say that these individuals are driven by high octane emotions. Many of them are also on the payrolls of political parties and a section of corporates who target business competitors.

“Where do you think the videos of spiked drinks or insect-laced food videos are coming from?” asked an expert.

Silent Government?

There is a whole economy that sustains these ‘digital warriors’ on social media. Many of them consider themselves ‘activists’ providing ‘social service’, I was told by an ethical hacker.

“These people are paid twice – first by their hirers and then via ads on Facebook pages,” said Sunil Abraham of Centre for Internet and Society.

Be it the rumour of Indian currency bearing a GPS chip or a fake video being blamed for fanning the riots in Muzaffarnagar, WhatsApp has the potential to spread dangerous untruths.

Experts say the priority now is to put mobile phones and digital services in people’s hands and not discourage companies that are bringing in high-end tech.

The other view is that with WhatsApp reaping rich rewards for the ruling class because of its incredible reach, politicians do not want to rock the boat.

The WhatsApp business model is also unclear. WhatsApp doesn’t provide analytics or a dashboard so finding out the reach of digital content via the number of clicks is not possible.

To snap the backbone of the fake news economy, Sunil Abraham argues that “there is a need to attack the financial incentives of the culprits and diversify the users’ newsfeed.”

(This article is part of a series done in co-production between The Quint and BBC Hindi called Swachh Digital India. Also read this article in Hindi on Quint Hindi here and on BBC Hindi here. Read more articles from Swachh Digital India here.)

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