The popular messaging app has quickly turned into a medium to spread fake news and hatred, leading to calls for controls

By Author  |  Published: 26th Aug 2018  12:10 amUpdated: 26th Aug 2018  12:06 am

WhatsApp, created in 2009 and acquired by tech giant Facebook in 2014, needs no introduction. Years after its inception, many around the globe believe that it has in fact turned into a medium for spreading hatred and fake news.

The messaging app, with its highest user base being India, has in the past few months constantly found itself in the eye of the storm. WhatsApp is now continuously being bashed by governments and citizens of many nations for being the medium of spreading violence, fake news, and other evil activities, including revenge porn.

Union IT Minister Ravi Shanker Prasad shakes hands with WhatsApp CEO Chris Daniels at a meeting in New Delhi recently. — Photo: Twitter via PTI

Bit by bit, the tech company has turned into one of the major reasons for many untoward incidents, losing trust of the users. The Indian government, in an attempt to curb this growing menace had recently sent out a stern warning to WhatsApp.

Union Minister for Electronics and IT Ravi Shankar Prasad, who recently met WhatsApp CEO Chris Daniels, warned him of strict action if the company did not comply with the laws of India and find a solution to curb the spread of hate messages. But surprisingly, Daniels and co turned down the government’s directives.

Government’s Demand

With the problem getting out of hand, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) tightened the screws on WhatsApp and laid down a number of directives to curb the spread of fake news.

Ravi Shankar Prasad asked the company to set up a local corporate entity and appoint a dedicated grievance officer in India to address claims against the messaging platform, and directed it to develop a backdoor key for the government, one which it could use to unlock the platform’s end-to-end encryption and track fake messages to their origin.

The Reply

WhatsApp in a straightforward reply to the government said that it cannot build a special software to track the origin of fake messages because of the end-to-end encryption it had introduced in 2016.

“Building traceability would undermine end-to-end encryption and the private nature of WhatsApp, creating the potential for serious misuse. WhatsApp will not weaken the privacy protections we provide,” a WhatsApp spokesperson responded.

Is WhatsApp Wrong?

While many believe that the government’s stance on WhatsApp is right, there is a catch to it. The fact that the messaging app is turning out to be a platform for social evil is undeniable. But we cannot ignore another major fact: The end-to-end encryption has enabled users to keep their chats entirely private, which means not only hackers, but also WhatsApp itself cannot access any of the private chats of its users.

With the government now pushing for a key that will provide backdoor entry to all of WhatsApp messages, no conversation on the platform may remain private. If WhatsApp agrees to government’s demands, it will not just comprise the privacy of millions, but will also lead to unlocking every personal space on the web — including our digital mailboxes.

Experts opine that the government is simply trying to be the ‘Big Brother’ by keeping a keen eye on the conversations of millions in the name of curbing fake news, spread of hatred and violence.

So, WhatsApp’s stance cannot be considered entirely wrong, as it does not want to put privacy of millions of its users out in the open, leaving them vulnerable to security breaches.

The Culprits

While both WhatsApp and the government have been at the receiving end, the root cause of the issue, the users, have slyly gotten away by just pointing fingers and playing victims in a lot of cases, if not all.

According to WhatsApp’s data analysis, last carried out in 2016, only a mere 16.3% of the Indian population has access to the messaging app. Taking the number of users and the number of uncalled for events like lynching into consideration, it is evident that many of the users have not been scrutinising hazardous message before blindly forwarding them.

Over 35 people have been killed in the past one year by mobs after rumours of child lifting, thieving and sexual attacks were shared on WhatsApp.

What Are Other Countries Doing

Though a bit controversial, the Ugandan government took the decision of collecting tax for using social media sites and messaging apps for ‘spreading gossip’.

South Africa is contemplating a 16 year or older age restriction for the use of WhatsApp, much like most of the European countries that already follow the age restriction.

Earlier this year, Sri Lanka banned Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram to stop the increasing violence on the Muslim population in the country. Declaring a state of emergency, the country cut the services of the social media sites and the messaging app as they were being used to spread violence.

India can take a cue from these nations to curb the ever-growing menace. A combined effort from the users, government and WhatsApp could curb the spread of hate and violence to a large extent. But it remains unclear whether all of them will join forces to find a solution.

Curbing Fake News

Govt’s Duty: Instead of trying to open personal spaces of millions of WhatsApp users, the government needs to educate people on the adverse effects of spreading fake news. For instance, the government can use the example of the many mob-lynchings that occurred across the country due to the spread of fake news to stop. It has to step up its efforts in creating awareness

WhatsApp’s Duty: Apart from limiting the scope of forwarding a message to more than five numbers, WhatsApp needs to come up with features, which enable users to mark messages they find offensive or fake after which the company can step in and verify the content and stop the messages from being further circulated

Users’ Duty: The key to peace lies more with the users than with the government and WhatsApp. Upon receiving suspicious links of news or forwarded messages, a user needs to take out a moment to check the genuineness of the message s/he has received and think of the after-effects before blindly forwarding it to others