To tackle rumours, Whatsapp to launch new label

Horrified by terrible acts of violence, WhatsApp tells government

Following the Union government’s missive to take immediate measures to prevent misuse of its platform, WhatsApp, in its response has said that it is taking a number of steps to tackle the issue of fake messages on its platform, including testing a new label that highlights when a message has been forwarded versus composed by the sender.

The company, late on Wednesday, had also announced “unrestricted monetary awards” for research on spread of misinformation on its platform to address the problem.

“Like the Government of India, we’re horrified by these terrible acts of violence and wanted to respond quickly to the very important issues you have raised. We believe this is a challenge that requires government, civil society and technology companies to work together,” the company said in its response to Ministry of Electronics and IT.

The company said that it believes that false news, misinformation, and the spread of hoaxes are issues best tackled collectively: by government, civil society and technology companies working together.

New updates

It pointed out that recently a number of changes were made to group chats to prevent the spread of unwanted information, which they believe will address some of the specific issues raised by the government.

“We added new protections to prevent people from adding others back into groups which they had left — a form of misuse we think it is important to correct… we launched a new setting that enables administrators to decide who gets to send messages within individual groups,” the company said, adding that this will help reduce the spread of unwanted messages into important group conversations as well as the forwarding of hoaxes and other content.

It added that it has been testing a new label in India that highlights when a message has been forwarded versus composed by the sender. “This could serve as an important signal for recipients to think twice before forwarding messages because it lets a user know if content they received was written by the person they know or a potential rumour from someone else.” This feature is planned to be launched soon.

Collaboration with fact checking platforms

Stressing that the company is working to educate people about how to stay safe online, it said it will soon publish new educational materials around misinformation and conduct news literacy workshops.

“This year, for the first time, we also started working with fact checking organisations to identify rumours and false news — and respond to them using WhatsApp,” the company said. For example, during the recent Presidential election in Mexico, WhatsApp worked closely with the news consortium Verificado. Users sent thousands of rumours to Verificado’s WhatsApp account and in turn were provided regular updates on what was accurate and what was false.

In India, too, the fact checking organization Boom Live is available on WhatsApp.

“This kind of work gives everyone a better understanding of the problematic fake news circulating on WhatsApp, and how it relates to misinformation being shared on other platforms. In addition, it’s a helpful resource right within WhatsApp where people can get answers about content they’ve been sent. It’s why we’re looking at how best to ramp up these efforts in India going forward.”

WhatsApp said it retains limited information and is end-to-end encrypted. “We use this technology to protect our user’s privacy and security. While WhatsApp messages can be highly viral, the way people use the app is by nature still very private.”

It said nearly 25% in India are not in a group; the majority of groups continue to be small (less than ten people); and nine in ten messages are still sent from just one person to another.

“This focus on privacy brings many benefits, though as with all technology there are trade offs. And for WhatsApp, that’s the inability to see problematic content spreading through private conversations on our app,” it said.

It, however, added that it does have the ability to prevent spam, which includes some of the misinformation that can create mistrust and potentially violence. WhatsApp block’s messages based on user reports and by the manner in which they are sent. “We use machine learning to identify accounts sending a high volume of messages (faster than any human could) and we are constantly working to improve our ability to stop unwanted automated messages.”

The exchange between the company and the government follows reports of lynching and killing of people across the country, including in Assam, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tripura and West Bengal, due to "large number of irresponsible and explosive messages filled with rumours and provocation are being circulated on WhatsApp."

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