India tells WhatsApp to stop the deadly rumor mill, somehow

A wave of mob violence continues to roll across India, beatings and killings that appear to be related to conspiracy theories circulating on WhatsApp. In the most recent episode last Sunday, five people were lynched by a mob who believed they were child kidnappers. As CJR has described in a previous post, one problem with trying to stop the spread of misinformation on the service is that the network is encrypted, so neither WhatsApp nor its parent Facebook ever see the individual messages.

It’s a little like trying to stop conspiracy theories being spread by people calling each other on the phone. Are there ways to do it? Yes, but the solution could turn out to be worse than the problem.

The Indian government, however, doesn’t see it that way. The country’s information ministry sent a strongly worded letter to WhatsApp this week, saying it “cannot evade accountability and responsibility” for the abuse on its platform. The government also ordered the company to “take immediate action to end this menace.” In a response, WhatsApp executives argued that they can’t solve the problem alone, and that false news, misinformation, and the spread of hoaxes “are issues best tackled collectively by government, civil society and technology companies working together.”

WhatsApp said it is “horrified by these acts of violence,” and that it has taken a series of steps recently to try to cut down on misinformation, including giving WhatsApp group administrators more power over who gets to send messages. The company also said it will give up to $50,000 to researchers to study the problem. But is this enough? Nikhil Pahwa doesn’t think so. The founder and publisher of a site called Medianama, Pahwa wrote about some of the steps he thinks WhatsApp should take:

Change #1: Users can make messages either public (media) or private (P2P message). The default setting for all messages should be private. This will impact virality on the platform, but that’s a price it will have to pay for bringing in accountability. This will create a level of friction while forwarding: they will be frustrated when they cannot forward certain messages.

Pahwa also argued that WhatsApp could make it easier for users to flag certain messages as misinformation or hoaxes, and they could then be reviewed by WhatsApp moderators the same way spam is. Other users responding to his post said it should be easy enough to delete these messages not just in a few accounts but anywhere they were shared across the network, which could reduce the spread and reach of conspiracy theories. A proposal from Pahwa that suggested every public message should have a unique ID tagged to its creator, however, got some pushback:

The anonymity and encryption of WhatsApp are what make the app so appealing for many, in particular for dissidents and others who want to communicate with fear of being identified. And yet, those same features also enable or empower trolls and bad actors to misuse the platform for their own purposes. How do you stop one without also crippling the other? Meanwhile, some believe that in this case, India itself is more to blame for the misinformation problem than WhatsApp.

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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 Reuters and Bloomberg.