After lynchings, government warns WhatsApp over spread of rumours

The government has expressed its “deep disapproval” to instant messaging service company WhatsApp, over “irresponsible and explosive messages”, warning it to prevent the spread of rumours that have incited several instance of violence in the country in the last two months.

“While the law and order machinery is taking steps to apprehend the culprits, the abuse of platform like WhatsApp for repeated circulation of such provocative content are equally a matter of deep concern,” the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said in a statement. “It has also been pointed out that such a platform cannot evade accountability and responsibility especially when good technological inventions are abused by some miscreants who resort to provocative messages which lead to spread of violence,” the statement said.

An official familiar with the matter said on condition of anonymity the implicit message is that if the messaging service does not act, the government would be forced to act.

Fake videos and rumours of alleged child-lifters have resulted in mobs targetting innocent bystanders or visitors. At least eight states, including Karnataka, Assam, Maharashtra and Gujarat, have reported incidents of mob violence motivated by WhatsApp messages on child-lifters. The most recent incident occurred in Maharashtra, where five people were lynched on Sunday, although the role of a messaging platform in this case hasn’t been established. Fear of the child-lifters has killed at least 29 people since May last year, of which at least 19 has been in the last two months alone.

Fact checking should be built into the interface of WhatsApp to avoid rumour-mongering, said Sunil Abraham, founder of the think tank Centre for Internet and Society. “So, for instance, if there is a database of discredited names then each message sent or received should be checked against that database,” he said.

In December, a top Facebook executive confirmed plans to bring third party fact checking to India.

Abraham added that a hard regulatory approach won’t work in this case. “If Facebook were to ban end-to-end encryption to be able to monitor what’s happening on WhatsApp, chances are people will move to free software alternatives (that do the same).”

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