WhatsApp, Fake News? The Internet and Risks of Misinformation in India
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WhatsApp, Fake News? The Internet and Risks of Misinformation in India


The two worst things one has to bear with on Indian WhatsApp are fake news and good morning messages. Although I am not a frequent user, I was not spared. I have, for instance, once received a ridiculous message from Indian users claiming that Japan is the only country in the world where there are no mosques, no Muslims and no Arabic is taught. The underlying idea was that one of the most developed and organized countries keeps its status partially thanks to the fact that it has no Muslim minority and does not promote Islam. That’s not simply somebody’s mistake or an innocent good morning message. There was a vicious agenda behind creating such a message, an agenda unknowingly spread later both by those who believe it ideologically as well as those who likely meant no harm but did not bother to check the authenticity of the message.

It can get much worse than this. In recent years, the peddling fake news via WhatsApp was said to be a factor in inciting violence in India at least a few times. In 2013, before the 2014 elections, Hindu-Muslim riots hit the Muzaffarnagar region after a video of a lynching was spread through WhatsApp and other means. The lynching video was apparently old and taken from another country, but was being presented as an event from the area of Muzaffarnagar. In July 2018, fake news about foreigners abducting children led to the beating and lynching of innocent people in the state of Assam in northeastern India. Later in July, a similar incident took place in Karnataka in southern India, where WhatsApp messages wrongly blamed a Muslim for being a child kidnapper (as he seen was feeding children chocolate having stopped during his travel), and he was eventually murdered.

WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook were temporarily blocked in Sri Lanka in early 2018 for their misuses which played a role in fanning the sparks of anti-Muslim violence. This time, however, it seems no fake news was spread – it was rather that Facebook and WhatsApp were being used to spread videos inciting people to attack the followers of Islam. Fake news has become such a huge issue in India that there both media and private people have taken to the task of verifying and countering them, as reported in one of my earlier pieces for The Diplomat.

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WhatsApp realizes the gravity of the problem. In June this year, the application added a feature that informs the recipient a the message has been forwarded (and, thus, has not been created by the immediate sender). In July, the company promised generous research grants for experts who would study the field of misinformation. The same month, it announced that it limits the number of shares – the maximum number of simultaneous chats, through which one can share news and other items – to 20, and to five in India. WhatsApp also withdrew the quick share option for Indian users. While the announcement, made through a blog post, called the changes a “test,” and did not make any reference to fake news or incited violence, a remark worth noting is that the company expressed hope to “keep WhatsApp the way it was designed to be: a private messaging app.” It was also clear that India stood out in the message. The announcement called India a country “where people forward more messages, photos, and videos than any other country in the world” and the limits WhatsApp has introduced specifically for Indian users are obviously stricter than the ones imposed everywhere else.

But is WhatsApp to blame for the fake news and the violence they incite and should be it singled out from other means of modern communication?

First, it is not just WhatsApp. As mentioned above, fake news, doctored images and videos representing unrelated events were also shared on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and via other methods. Politicians, their spin doctors, and radical hatemongers use all the tools they can. The traditional media may have more mechanisms to separate fake news from fact, but some newspapers and TV channels play their own role in spreading misinformation or sheer propaganda, and on a much larger scale than WhatsApp’s shared messages. As just one of the many instances in the Indian context, one could remember how prior to the Babri masjid’s demolition in 1992 – the mosque’s destruction led to widespread Hindu-Muslim violence – certain Hindi-language newspapers spread “fake news” that incited radical Hindus against Muslims. The problem is also not limited to India. WhatsApp has been misused in Sri Lanka, as mentioned above, and in Myanmar, Brazil and Mexico, too.

Second, what separates WhatsApp from other means is the technology. As a simple messaging app, it was designed as much less intrusive on people’s privacy than the deeply penetrating Facebook. WhatsApp’s administrators reportedly have no access to the content of messages – they are encrypted unless specifically reported. Because Facebook (WhatsApp’s owner), knows much more about its users, it has greater capability to combat fake news and more means to handle the issue. It seems this is one of the dilemmas of the modern, electronic world: The more a social medium or a messaging application knows about its users, the more it can do to limit malicious behavior, but the more it knows, the more it can be used to spy on people’s lives (and thus be misused in equally evil ways).

In a very simplified sense, it is a choice between using tools like WhatsApp and being exposed to fake news or using tools like Facebook and also being exposed to fake news, having a bit bigger chance to report it and combat it, but risking that our personal data can be mined, for example, to manipulate an election campaign. There is a third choice – not to use any of it at all. The middle way is to be both very careful about one’s privacy and about trusting news (any news: coming from friends, traditional media or social media). Once again, it boils down to people, not their tools.

Third, it is all about a chain of trust. I may not trust the media – especially in the light of what was written above – but I trust my friends. The person that had sent me the information about “no Islam in Japan” is a person I trust and know to be very honest. It is possible that this person received the message from another friend, whom that person trusts. Someplace in that chain somebody misused the trust of other people to peddle his agenda. Still, I would not expect anybody to trust media more than his friends. Perhaps it is more about relying on friends for information on what they should know more about than us, such as their personal lives or professional expertise, but not necessarily on general news.

There are concrete people to blame for such violence-inciting fake news, and WhatsApp is just one of their many instruments. People have been peddling false accusations against others for ages, long before not only the Internet, but even before print media. When reading about recent cases of fake news inciting violence in the Indian state of Assam, it came to my mind that they bear resemblance to how Jews were perceived and treated in medieval Europe. In Assam, some foreign (i.e. non-Assamese Indians) individuals were beaten or lynched on false accusation that they wanted to kidnap children. On a very general level, it bears resemblance to an old European myth about Jews kidnapping Christian children. In both cases, a vague notion of the little-known “Other” as conducting the most horrendous act of abducting children is used to temporarily unify the community in an act of violence.

Thus, the human race has a long history of blaming others for fictional misdeeds. Modern tools such as social media and messaging applications can reinforce the old stereotypes that some groups harbor about others. But WhatsApp or the entire Internet should hardly be blamed. Why this may be a risky theory, I do not think the Internet has elevated the problem to new levels (and, as a neutral tool, it can be used as much to tackle it). Violence against others was much worse and widespread during the pre-Internet era. Given a chance, the Nazis would have surely used the Internet to peddle their hate, but, fortunately, the web appeared in our life when education and civic responsibility became much stronger, at least in some societies.

The scale of information with which we bomb our minds is beyond our capacity to equally analyze all of it. What is needed is a realization of which education tools and awareness campaigns have been most successful in changing the mindsets of people. The more stereotypes are countered, the lesser the chance that fake news will fall on fertile ground and lead to tragedy.

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