The Media Today

In India, the fake news problem isn’t Facebook, it’s WhatsApp

May 16, 2018

Ever since the news broke that a Russian troll factory used Facebook to spread misinformation during the 2016 US election, the social network has been a lightning rod for widespread concern about the problem of fake news, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories. But in many countries outside the US, the big problem isn’t what’s spreading on Facebook, but what’s being distributed via WhatsApp—the messaging software Facebook acquired in 2014 for $19 billion, which for many people in non-US countries provides a free alternative to text messaging. As The New York Times points out in a recent story:

“More than any other social media or messaging app, WhatsApp was used in recent months by India’s political parties, religious activists, and others to send messages and distribute news to Karnataka’s 49 million voters. While many messages were ordinary campaign missives, some were intended to inflame sectarian tensions and others were downright false, with no way to trace where they originated.”

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The Times quotes a youth leader for one Indian political party who says he used WhatsApp to keep in touch with 60 voters he was assigned to track, sending them critiques of the government. But he also claims 23 activists were killed by jihadists—a report that has been proven false—and that a fake poll allegedly commissioned by the BBC predicted a win for his party. In the days before the recent election, the two leading parties said they had set up at least 50,000 WhatsApp groups to spread messages, including videos and fake news articles aimed at exploiting anti-Muslim sentiment.

According to a report from the Indian news site Financial Express, fabricated reports on WhatsApp of child abductions by immigrants have led to at least two attacks that resulted in innocent people being beaten by mobs and hanged. India is estimated to have more WhatsApp users than any other country, with about 200 million people using it at least once a month, out of a total of 1.5 billion monthly active global users, and the rate of adoption is still climbing, driven by the declining cost of smartphones and cellular data plans. The same phenomenon has been seen in Indonesia and Latin America.

Fact-checking groups working to debunk hoaxes and conspiracy theories in India say the spread of misinformation is increasingly happening on WhatsApp rather than Facebook or Twitter, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal. “More than 90 percent of the stuff we are debunking is on WhatsApp,” said Govindraj Ethiraj, a journalist and founder of a fact-checking group called Boom. And because WhatsApp allows for anonymous accounts and uses end-to-end encryption, it can be almost impossible to determine where a rumor or hoax originated or how it spread so widely.

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Here’s more on the problem of fake news outside the US and WhatsApp’s role in it:

  • A recent Washington Post article says many political activists in India are concerned the spread of fake news and hate speech on WhatsApp is affecting not just recent elections, but could impair the very functioning of democratic society. “It is getting out of hand, and WhatsApp doesn’t know what to do about it,” said Nikhil Pahwa, a digital rights activist. “The difficulty with WhatsApp is that it’s impossible to know how this information is spreading.”
  • The New York Times describes how the app has been used to spread rumors about alleged Muslim mob violence, including one report in which a video of a purported attack on a Hindu woman turned out to be video of an unrelated lynching in Guatemala. Messages spread by political parties have said the Indian elections represent a “war of faith.”
  • According to Indian news outlet NDTV, riots erupted in December after the body of a boy was found floating in a pond in the Karnataka region and reports spread on WhatsApp and Twitter that his body had been mutilated. The local police eventually released a forensic report noting that the reports were false, but the rumors continued.
  • On an Indian opinion site, an author and academic called for the government to consider regulating WhatsApp to prevent the spread of fake news and hate speech. The app has been blocked for short periods in both India and Brazil, where it has been criticized for not handing over data on users when ordered to do so. Facebook says it can’t provide data because the app is encrypted.


Other notable stories:

  • Tom Wolfe, the father of New Journalism, died on Monday at 88. His New York Times obituary called Wolfe “an innovative journalist and novelist whose technicolor, wildly punctuated prose brought to life the worlds of California surfers, car customizers, astronauts and Manhattan‚ moneyed status-seekers.” In 2006 for CJR, Jack Shafer examined the legacy of Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
  • As Europe prepares for the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation on May 25, the Reuters Institute looked at the use of third-party content (i.e., ads) and tracking cookies on European news sites. The report found that news sites in the UK have an average of 90 third-party tracking cookies on every page, and content that comes from as many as 17 different domains.
  • Google says it is working on a bug that resulted in the BBC website coming up for the vast majority of searches of the term “news” in the UK, according to BuzzFeed, which said it notified the search engine company of the problem. At one point, the BBC appeared in every single result in the top 50 results returned for that term, and in 97 of the top 100 results.
  • Facebook reported in a quarterly overview of its moderation efforts that it took some kind of action against about 1.5 billion accounts or pieces of posted content in the first three months of this year. The company said it took action on 837 million pieces of spam; shut down 583 million fake accounts; and removed 2.5 million pieces of hate speech and 1.9 million pieces of terrorist propaganda, as well as 3.4 million pieces of graphic violence and 21 million examples of nudity and sexual activity.
  • The Pew Research Center for Journalism and Media looked at attitudes toward the media and trust in European countries, and found that in general, residents of countries in southern Europe tend to be much more skeptical of the media than people who live in northern countries such as Sweden and Germany. In France, only 28 percent of those surveyed said the media was “very important.”
  • CJR contributor Nicholas Diakopoulos writes about how machine-learning algorithms can be used to create compelling but totally fictional images, audio clips, and even video that appear to be of real events and individuals. These so-called “deepfakes” are becoming much more feasible, Diakopoulos says, and journalists should be aware of the technology so they can work to debunk them.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.