India is the biggest market for social media platforms and messaging apps, making it the most fertile ground for spread of misinformation or fake news. And it is India that actions following fake news are most real and menacing, costing several lives in a spate of mob lynching

In August this year, WhatsApp chief Chris Daniels came to India amid reports that fake messages circulating on the platform cost 20 lives, from Assam to Karnataka. Recently, micro-blogging site, Twitter, took down more than 10 million tweets from accounts suspected to be linked with misinformation campaigns.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey made his maiden visit to India, 12 years after the micro-blogging site was set up, and said the company’s job is to prevent users from taking action based on misinformation. Dorsey has said during public appearances and newspaper interviews in India that fake news is a “multi-variable problem” and stressed the need for a better mechanism to stay ahead of those spreading misinformation on the social networking platform.

Recently, Twitter took down more than 10 million tweets, with 2 million photos, videos and Periscope broadcast, from accounts suspected to be linked with misinformation campaigns. These accounts included 3,800 accounts originating in Russia and 770 accounts from Iran. The ‘purge’ caused furore across the world as several celebrities lost on followers.

Earlier, appearing before a senate committee in the US, the Twitter CEO admitted that the micro-blogging platform was “underprepared and ill-equipped” for misuse of social media. He said that Twitter was built to function as a “public square” but failed address the problem of “abuse, harassment, troll armies, propaganda through bots.”

The two events are related: India is grappling with fake news that comes in different forms of misinformation (wrong information spread unknowingly), disinformation (wrong information spread deliberately with a motive) and malformation (real information with wrong context). Fake news can be manipulated information, real information with wrong context and false claims.

For instance, the rumour related to lynching was real information with wrong context. It was real for one geography and used in other geographies with wrong context.

WhatsApp is the biggest culprit because it is most popular among smartphone users. According to a report by ComScore, titled ‘Global Digital Future in Focus’, WhatsApp appears to be the most popular app among 300 million smartphone users in India (as of end of 2017).  WhatsApp has a user base of 200 million in India. Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, doesn’t figure in the list of the top five apps in use in the country.

Also, in India, smartphone usage accounts for 89% of total digital minutes spent in a day (the total time spent using internet access gadgets), while the rest is spent on a desktop or laptop. That’s even higher than the US and Canada, where time is almost equally divided between tablets and phones, and to a smaller extent on PCs.

That makes WhatsApp the biggest carrier of fake news. That precisely is the reason why India’s Minister of Law and Justice and Electronics & IT Ravi Shankar Prasad told WhatsApp chief to implement three measures: “You must have a grievance system in India and a whole system where people can reach you immediately. Secondly, you must have proper compliance with Indian laws. We will not appreciate a scenario where any problem that has risen is answered to only in America. Thirdly, WhatsApp having become an important component of India’s digital story must have a proper corporate entity located in India.”

Daniels told Prasad that the company will soon follow these. “We are working with law enforcement agencies to develop a system,” Prasad told Daniels while briefing reporters.

Widespread sharing of false rumours on WhatsApp has led to a wave of violence in India, with people forwarding on fake messages about child abductors to friends and family out of a sense of duty to protect loved ones and communities.

But it was not only in India that WhatsApp came under attack for the spread of fake news. Freedom House, a US-based government-funded NGO, has reported that WhatsApp was disrupted in 12 of 65 countries — Turkey, Zimbabwe, Azerbaijan, Qatar, UAE, Bangladesh, China, Morroco, Egypt, China, Saudi Arabia — in 2016 and 2017.

Uganda has introduced a social media tax to check online gossip, among other objectives, and made social media inaccessible to those who have not paid the tax, according to a report in Quartz. In Mexico, private groups collaborated to set up Verificado 2018, a fact-checking initiative that tries to intervene in the spread of fake news on WhatsApp, particularly during the recent elections, according to Harvard University’s journalism initiative Nieman Foundation.

In India, the deluge of fake news on social media and some TV news channels has spawned birth of fact-checking websites such as AltNews, Boomlive and SMHoaxslayer that bust these lies.

Of all social media platforms, WhatsApp is proving the most challenging for investigators trying to track the source of such rumours and formulate a response.

Messaging services by nature do not leave a trail for specific messages. From SMS to Facebook Instant Messenger, it is very difficult to track where a message originated if has been forwarded many times. However, with most of these services, the information is with the parent server and police can request the company for access to information, such as IP address, for investigation.

With WhatsApp, it is more complex. Everything on the platform is encrypted end-to-end at the device level — all data is stored on the device and not on servers. So, WhatsApp does not know what is being discussed. The privacy notice on WhatsApp’s website says, “Once your messages… are delivered, they are deleted from our servers. Your messages are stored on your own device. If a message cannot be delivered immediately (for example, if you are offline), we may keep it on our servers for up to 30 days… If a message is still undelivered after 30 days, we delete it. To improve performance and deliver media messages more efficiently… we may retain that content on our servers for a longer period of time.”

Fake news and hate speech thrive on regional language social media, too. A recent Hindustan Times investigation has revealed that regional language social media platforms such as ShareChat, with 50 million registered users, and Helo, with at least 5 million estimated registered users, are rife with misinformation and political propaganda. From blatant lies to partially true polarising content to violent hate speech, the platforms built for the “next billion” internet users face the same challenges for which American social media giants such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp are facing intense scrutiny.

According to a BBC research, a rising tide of nationalism in India is driving ordinary citizens to spread fake news. Social media analysis suggested that right-wing networks are much more organised than on the left, pushing nationalistic fake stories further.

The findings come from extensive research in India, Kenya, and Nigeria into the way ordinary citizens engage with and spread fake news.

Participants gave the BBC extensive access to their phones over a seven-day period, allowing the researchers to examine the kinds of material they shared, whom they shared it with and how often.

The research, commissioned by the BBC World Service and published today, forms part of “Beyond Fake News” – a series across TV, radio and digital that aims to investigate how disinformation and fake news are affecting people around the world.

In all three countries, distrust of mainstream news outlets pushed people to spread information from alternative sources, without attempting to verify it, in the belief that they were helping to spread the real story. People were also overly confident in their ability to spot fake news.

The sheer flood of digital information being spread in 2018 is worsening the problem. Participants in the BBC research made little attempt to query the original source of fake news messages, looking instead to alternative signs that the information was reliable.

Earlier this month, WhatsApp announced that it has selected 20 research teams worldwide, including experts from India and those of Indian origin, who will work towards how misinformation spreads and what additional steps the mobile messaging platform could take to curb fake news.

Shakuntala Banaji from London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), Anushi Agrawal and Nihal Passanha from Bengaluru-based media and arts collective “Maraa” and Ramnath Bhat from LSE have been selected for the paper titled “WhatsApp Vigilantes? WhatsApp messages and mob violence in India”.

The research examines the ways in which WhatsApp users understand and find solutions to the spate of “WhatsApp lynchings” that have killed over 30 people so far.

WhatsApp had issued a call for papers in July this year and received proposals from over 600 research teams around the world. “Each of the 20 research teams will receive up to $50,000 for their project (for a total of $1 million),” WhatsApp said in a statement.

In India, WhatsApp has partnered with the Digital Empowerment Foundation to train community leaders in several states on how to address misinformation.

“We are also running ads in several languages — in print, online, and on over 100 radio stations – amounting to the largest public education campaign on misinformation anywhere in the world,” the company noted.

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