How WhatsApp can easily fix the Fake News problem

WhatsApp, India’s largest communication platform used by an estimated 65% of the country’s online population, has come under scrutiny for providing a conduit to distribute ‘fake news’ after multiple cases of lynchings came to light.

While the company has urged ‘society and companies’ to help tackle the menace, the messaging application has some more to do before it can claim that it is trying its best.

A REVOLUTION IN COMMUNICATION

Over the past five years, WhatsApp has empowered Indian citizens like no other communication tool other than the mobile phone.

Indians use it to message each other, share jokes, photographs and videos, and organize events, groups and communities in a way that was unthinkable before the application came on the scene.

Yet, the platform — that has contributed immensely to India’s economy and society — is attracting headlines for being misused by criminals, political parties and other ‘mischief-makers’.

Even as it contributes immensely to spreading political awareness and information among the masses, it is also being used to spread fake news, malware, superstitions and other forms of misinformation for political ends, or simply for ‘fun’.

While social media is, in general, prone to such criminal and mischievous activities, WhatsApp has surpassed all others in terms of its susceptibility to such manipulations. The problem is so bad that, in our experience, about half the ‘news’ that comes via WhatsApp is wrong or fake.

The reason for such a high-level of ‘fakeness’ is not difficult to fathom. Unlike Facebook and Twitter — where any and all content is permanently tagged to the account that originally uploaded it — WhatsApp does not give an easy means to track down the original uploader of a message or post.

In other words, if you create a fake ‘post’ on WhatsApp and forward it to someone, and that someone forwards it to another person, the second recipient cannot see the message and make out that you are the one who created it.

It is, of course, still possible for the messaged to be traced back to you by following the trail of forwards. But it’s an onerous process, and criminals and political outfits are well aware of that fact. This makes them bolder when uploading and creating fake and misleading information, and hence WhatsApp’s fake news problem.

Many ways have been suggested to fix this, including making it more difficult to forward messages.

However, the core of the problem remains the near total anonymity that the platform affords to the original ‘content creators’. Until this issue is addressed to some degree, the problem of fake news can perhaps not be tackled effectively.

For example, WhatsApp can embed a unique ‘creator ID’ for each new piece of content created or posted on the platform. This ID can, under court supervision, be used to track the message down to its original creator.

However, WhatsApp has so far not shown much inclination to making it easy to track its users.

“We don’t want our services used to spread harmful misinformation and believe this is a challenge that companies and societies should address,” the company told Boom in response to an appeal by the government on Tuesday for the company to take steps to curb fake news.

WhatsApp also referred to the introduction of the ‘forwarded’ tag — a tiny step in the direction of making it easier to trace the source of a piece of content — in its statement.

“We recently made a number of updates to our group chats and will be stepping up efforts to help people spot false news and hoaxes,” said the US-based subsidiary of Facebook.

Still, much remains to be done as far as providing traceability of content is concerned.

Just like adulteration of commodities, adulteration of news/information too is a harmful activity. Just like a supermarket that distributes an adulterated commodity has a duty to help trace the source of the adulterated commodity, a platform like WhatsApp — when used to distribute adulterated information — has the responsibility to help track down the source of the adulterated news.

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