WhatsApp has its work cut out. The problem of fake news is really hard to solve. The Facebook owned instant messaging app is facing flak in the wake of rising incidents of the spread of fake news and rumours on the instant messaging app, triggering lynching incidents in the country. The government of India has sent a second notice to WhatsApp to suggest and implement concrete steps to deal with the fake and violence-inciting content being spread via instant messages. For starters, WhatsApp has announced that it is now restricting the ability to forward messages to friends and on groups—any user will now be able to forward the same message only five times, and the option to forward will then be blocked on that message.
But that is a limited measure, and anyone who is genuinely intent, will find ways to work around it. In the meantime, WhatsApp has confirmed that it will imbibe some learnings from the recent general elections in Mexico, and modify those solutions for India.
False news and hate-inciting messages don’t always come as texts—they can be shared as photos, videos, GIFs and memes. As per the numbers from research firm Statista, WhatsApp had more than 1,500 million active users globally. That is a lot of messages being sent on the networks. WhatsApp is also the most popular instant messaging app in India.
The recent general elections in Mexico also saw WhatsApp struggle with fake news. In a country where divisions were quite apparent before the elections, and there is a general distrust of the conventional sources of information, the population was potentially vulnerable to the stream of unverified and fake news spread on the instant messaging app. And the answers for the current predicament it finds itself ahead of the 2019 General Elections in India, could be found in Mexico.
Verificado 2018, a collaborative election reporting and fact-checking initiative which included Animal Político, AJ+ Español, Pop-Up Newsroom and Newsweek En Español, stepped in to make a difference. How it worked is that Verificado set up a WhatsApp account and invited WhatsApp users to send in information that they receive not just on the instant messaging app but also other sources and social networks. For every message that a WhatsApp user forwarded, the team manually verified that information and responded to every single user individually, confirming or correcting the information that they had. This initiative was supported by Google News Initiative, Twitter and the Facebook Journalism Project, among others.
Verificado’s service was launched in March, ahead of the summer’s general elections in Mexico, and had partners in 28 of Mexico’s 32 states checking content authenticity and correctness. It’s idea was to do fact-checking for any content shared with them by the general public, and not just restricted to WhatsApp messages or forwards. Verificado also used the Status feature in WhatsApp to get the word out—usually with images and overlaying text—if there was a specific incorrect yet heavily shared news doing rounds at that time, or gauged as per the queries they received from users.
It is not yet known how this tool will be deployed in India, if at all in this way, and who the content and fact-checking partners will be.