How to Wage a War on Fake News?

WhatsApp will soon launch a feature that will alert users about suspicious forwarded messages

e4m by Venkata Susmita Biswas
Updated: Jul 11, 2018 9:00 AM
Fake News

Last week IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad in no uncertain terms demanded accountability from social media platforms like WhatsApp that are increasingly being abused and used to spread fake news. He is reported to have said that finding technological solutions to identify mass-circulation of messages on a particular issue in a particular area cannot be "rocket science".

In what seemed to be a response to the minister’s remarks, Whatsapp put out an advisory on battling fake news and limiting the spread of the same. On Tuesday morning many Indians woke up to ten tips on identifying suspicious information and double-checking photos, links and information shared on the app. Whatsapp recently came under fire in India following mob violence fuelled by rumours of child lifters being shared via the app.

The minister said that curbing fake news for a platform cannot be rocket science but it is more complicated than imposing a few checks and balances driven by algorithms. Controlling the spread of Fake News on WhatsApp can be seen as an incursion on the right to privacy itself, one media buyer said. It is therefore easier for a platform such as YouTube to place restrictions than for Whatsapp to snoop into one’s texts and redact fake news. Social media experts felt that there should be multiple levels of safety measures put in place to curb the menace in addition to educating users about identifying fake news and not spreading it further.

Making Users Accountable

“Understand when a message is forwarded,” the ad warned users. With this ad Whatsapp put the onus on users to be vigilant about what they receive, believe, and share. Some saw this ad as an attempt by the app makers to “absolve themselves of any responsibility.” Rashmi Putcha, co-founder and director, Liqvd Asia said, “A platform that facilitates content dissemination has the obligation of preventing misuse as well.”

Users are an integral part of the problem. Misinformation that goes viral through WhatsApp is indiscriminately shared and re-shared by users who do not check the veracity of the information they have received and shared. It is therefore critical to “make people accountable for what they spread,” felt Rahul Vengalil, co-founder CEO, Whatclicks. 
Anonymity affords users the opportunity to behave badly both online and offline. “If there is a way to inform users that they are not anonymous, with that light shining on users, the behaviour may improve. But this move may be misused by oppressive regimes and Governments in targeting dissidents (for rightful, legal reasons) and marginalised people, so it is a double-edged sword,” said social media consultant Karthik Srinivasan.

The other reason why Whatsapp users need to be educated about spotting fake news is because they are most often “early stage digital users who are still grappling with the pace at which the digital ecosystem is changing,” said Sanjay Mehta, joint CEO Mirum India.

Srinivasan noted that the WhatsApp ad is similar to a Facebook ad from last year that offered common-sense based tips to end users, to curb fake news. He said that while they seem way too simplistic and easy, but they are perhaps merely released to create awareness that users need to be more observant, and that passing on content (through these platforms) have real world impact. It's one part of the overall set of actions that these platforms (among others) need to take to tackle this problem.

Good Intent

The ad also introduced a new feature that will let users see which messages have been forwarded. This new feature may not be the fool-proof solution to the problem at hand, but it is a start. Putcha said that it would be far easier for a platform to screen and block bad content than “expect thousands of users to identify and prevent it.”

Tools like the one that WhatsApp is creating will only work if users themselves have the right intent to weed out fake news and overcome bystander apathy. Srinivasan was of the opinion that if people are given access to tools that categorically show that the piece of content about to be shared is fake at least ones who are lower down the chain (and not the originators) may think twice before sharing something which is nothing but a 'lie'. This measure still “may not dissuade people who want to cause damage to the concerned people in the news, whether with truth or even a lie,” he said.

Vengalil argued that in addition to having multiple levels of checks and balances to spot and remove fake content, what is more important is making these features more prominent easy to use.

Unified Efforts

YouTube is also fighting a war on fake news. It introduced a few new updates to curb the spread of fake news this week. YouTube will start providing more sources and context on breaking news and make authoritative news sources more prominent.

Following severe backlash from advertisers YouTube has taken multiple measures to check the quality of content shared on the platform and imposed restrictions on monetising content to weed out bad actors. WhatsApp should have learnt from the YouTube fiasco and proactively taken steps to curb the proliferation of fake news through its app instead of absolving itself of any responsibility, felt Putcha.

YouTube has tasked 10,000 people with monitoring and flagging bad content. Maybe WhatsApp could incorporate a similar human intervention for vernacular content that may be harder to screen by algorithms? “In a country like India, I think it may come down to that,” said Srinivasan. He added, “Just like a media organisation has 2-3 levels of scrutiny to check news and its veracity, WhatsApp, and Facebook (who recently argued that it is a 'publisher') need to take responsibility of what passes through their networks before assigning blame on users.”

While YouTube may have started battling fake news and bad actors before WhatsApp, it has not done enough, said media buyers. Putcha said, "Attempts of both platforms are far from adequate. Frankly, this has to be a unified attempt by the platforms, the government and the people."

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