“WhatsApp cares deeply about your safety.”
The app reaffirming its commitment to users’ safety comes in the wake of growing instances of lynching and violence spurred by provocative messages circulated widely on it.
The new feature will label forwarded messages to distinguish them from one-on-one communications. In the wake of rampant misuse of its platform for circulation of provocative, and often fake content, the Facebook-owned texting app has come under fire from the government and public alike. But, is the new ‘forwarded’ feature a step forward?
“Starting today, WhatsApp will indicate which messages you receive have been forwarded to you,” the app announced on Tuesday in a blog titled ‘Labelling Forwarded Messages’. It describes two benefits of the new feature:
- This extra context will help make one-on-one and group chats easier to follow.
- It also helps you determine if your friend or relative wrote the message they sent or if it originally came from someone else.
Nikhil Pahwa, founder of Medianama, said WhatsApp had released the update more than a month ago on its beta platform. “This feature has been around for a couple of months now and as a user of the beta version I have been coming across the “forwarded” label.
WhatsApp’s official announcement on Monday came exactly a week after the Modi government issued a strongly worded letter that “warned” the app “for abuse on their platform”. Accompanied by full page advertisements in the leading news dailies, the update appears as a response towards tackling the alarming menace of violence and lynching.
A closer scrutiny of the new ‘forwarded’ feature reveals that while it provides ‘extra context’ to the user regarding texts, it falls short of striking at the root of the problem. The label will help in flagging that the sender of the text is not the original composer.
The feature, however, does not have a mechanism to identify who the original sender or composer of the text is. In the event of inflammatory texts that incite violence, police have repeatedly failed to identify the source of the texts. As a solution to this core problem, Pahwa suggests that forwarded messages should get a unique ID, that can be traced to the creator using proper legal procedure.
In a piece on fighting fake news that was republished in The Quint, he writes, “This means that the message, when public, is “media” and has proper attribution to the creator, every time the message is forwarded. A log is kept by WhatsApp only if the message is public. This allows both the platform and law enforcement agencies to trace the message back to the creator. From a platform perspective, there are two things: WhatsApp is now in a position to suspend this particular account, and secondly, it can disable the message, wherever it has been forwarded.”
Since May 2018, provocative texts on WhatsApp have allegedly led to 19 deaths in India. Fake messages that have often claimed child traffickers, organ smugglers and robbers are on the prowl. Such texts have purportedly been responsible for at least 13 incidents of fatal mob violence across Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Assam, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and most recently from Dhule district in Maharashtra where five people were lynched on WhatsApp-fed suspicion of being child lifters.
Users, however, have had a more mixed reaction to this feature. A number of users that The Quint spoke to said that while many forwards are obvious, there are some that look like they were composed, especially ones that mention specific incidents.
“I recently received a text from a friend saying that former Pakistan cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan had died in an accident. It was accompanied by a photograph of him in a state of injury. However, a quick google check revealed that the photograph was from 2013 where he had suffered head injuries after falling off a makeshift lift carrying him to a podium,” said a 63-year-old user in Kolkata.
The feature also raises the issue regarding accuracy of a forwarded message. Given that the label is meant to flag potentially inaccurate content, it may end up creating a perception that all forwards are dubious.
“During the Chennai floods forwarded messages had played a vital role in spreading class for help from people who were stranded or in need of immediate assistance. Ultimately, it is important for people to use the new labelling to pause and verify the contents,” said Swaminathan Narayan, an executive in a private pharmaceutical company in Hyderabad. This sentiment is shared by the app as well which mentions in its blog, “We encourage you to think before sharing messages that were forwarded.”
A key issue with the label also is with the language of the label. Hindi and other regional languages are widely used in communication on WhatsApp and a label in English may have little impact or relevance. Many incidents of lynching have occurred in rural parts where English may not be the medium of communication.
Pahwa also clarifies that the responsibility for menace of WhatsApp-borne violence cannot be dumped on the app alone. “Let’s be clear, messages do not lead to deaths. It is people who are killing people. In such cases there is a sense that law enforcement has failed to provide justice and second, that the perpetrators of violence feel they can get away with it,” he said.