WhatsApp fake news crisis is leading to riots & bloodshed

By Oliver Smith 13 February 2017
Photo from iStock/fstop123.

In India there seems to be no solution to this deadly trend.

Last year angry rumours began swirling across India, spread through private messaging groups on WhatsApp.

Talk of new banknotes with “nano GPS chips” to let the Government trace banknotes outraged millions of Indians – despite being entirely untrue.

The fake news was linked to India’s real decision to print new banknotes, part of a crackdown on the country’s booming underground economy where just 1% of people pay taxes.

It was the most high-profile example of a country in a fake news crisis.

The banknote that triggered widespread anger and WhatsApp rumours.

India’s fake news crisis

In November, WhatsApp rumours of a salt shortage led to panic in four Indian states. A woman was killed in the proceeding crush as people rushed to grocery shops to stock up on salt.

Another WhatsApp rumour of Indian tax officials raiding the house of a doctor who subsequently died from a heart attack led to huge public anger. It was only debunked after the (still living) doctor called a press conference to show he was alive and that there had been no raid.

In 2015 WhatsApp rumours of gangs attacking villages led to 200 locals forming their own gang to protect the neighbourhood and beating an innocent boy.

In response the police in India have arrested those who make up fake news stories or those who run the WhatsApp groups through which they spread.

But reactive policing isn’t stopping the underlying problem.

What’s the answer?

In India, WhatsApp is more popular than Facebook (160m users vs Facebook’s 155m).

That’s a problem because all WhatsApp conversations are encrypted and private, it’s much harder for the authorities or, indeed, for the media to keep track of what fake news is being spread.

While critics have targeted Facebook in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, blaming the social network for fostering fake news, at least Mark Zuckerberg has begun taking steps to crack down on it.

Facebook has started experimenting with the ways it can try and curtail the spread of fake news on Facebook, by identifying and stopping its spread.

On WhatsApp there’s no such silver bullet. Especially for countries like India where WhatsApp is so universally used without any moderation, that’s a big problem.

WhatsApp champions free speech with its encrypted messaging app, but we must draw a line when free speech turns into malicious lies.