Sure, WhatsApp Secures Privacy, But Who’s Monitoring Fake News?
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.
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.
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.
With internet costs plummeting, the challenges for the authorities shall multiply.
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.
Cookies are files that store favourite keywords for advertisement targeting.
The incredible reach of this app was evident in the just-concluded UP state elections.
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.
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”.
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.
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.”