WhatsApp steps over fake news may be too little, too late

Date Posted: May 1, 2019 Last Modified: June 30, 2023
The 2019 Lok Sabha elections are being described by many as the 'WhatsApp elections—not without reason. Photo: pixel2013, Pixabay

Four phases of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections are over, but the slew of measures taken by WhatsApp to curb fake news—particularly during the polls—seem to have come a cropper. The fake news ecosystem is alive and kicking, and disinformation is still spreading like wildfire.

If news reports are anything to go by, the dissemination of fake news and doctored videos on the world’s most popular messaging app has not ebbed in spite of the corrective and prohibitive steps that have been taken by WhatsApp since January this year.

Among fake news that have gone viral in the recent past include a clipped video of Congress MP Navjot Singh Sidhu purportedly chanting “Allah-o Akbar” to a crowd which repeated the chant after him. The post went viral on both Facebook and Twitter, and also raged on WhatsApp.

This came shortly after BJP IT cell head Amit Malviya posted a video in which Yogendra Yadav, the national president of the Swaraj India Party, was apparently seen and heard speaking about his “Muslim identity” to a crowd in Muslim-dominated Mewat. The video, in fact, was an edited clip, and had removed the context from Yadav's speech itself. Worse, the Mewat gathering had not been an election rally, but a protest meeting after the lynching of a Muslim man by a Hindu mob.

Both videos—though debunked by the AltNews fact-checking website—were feverishly shared on the WhatsApp platform, which remains the platform of choice for fake news dissemination.

Scrolling down the AltNews website shows a litany of such fake news and doctored videosRepublic TV, last week, broadcast a video of a man praising Narendra Modi, and insisting that only the corrupt wanted him to lose. The man was described as a Congress legislator from Madhya Pradesh called Anil Upadhyay—except that there is no MLA by that name in the state. AltNews has come across several viral videos of the same man, each one with a different claim.

The WhatsApp Elections

WhatsApp, which has the policy of end-to-end encryption to ensure privacy of conversations for its users, has been hopelessly ineffective so far in curbing the virulent spread of fake news and malicious propaganda. After a spate of mob lynching incidents last year across the country—most of which were reported to have been triggered or by provoked through WhatsApp forwards/messages, WhatsApp had taken some “corrective” measures. This included limiting the number of times a message could be forwarded. It, however, did not provide the government access to the end-to-end encryption of messages, or tweak its algorithms to arrest the spread of fake news.

There have been much-hyped campaigns too, with WhatsApp initiating its ‘Share Joy, Not Rumours’ campaign in two phases. The campaign which was launched in December 2018 on YouTube through a series of videos did not generate as many views—or even likes—as it possibly should have. The ‘Share Recipes, Share Compliments’ video, for instance, has till the last count generated about 280,637 views, and only 127 likes. The corresponding numbers for the ‘Share Birthdays, Share Laughter’ video were only 185,090 and 368. The second leg of the campaign was launched on March 25 this year, ostensibly keeping the Lok Sabha elections in mind. Not that it has been of much help, given that the spread of fake news has not exactly come to a grinding halt.

And it is not the BJP alone which has been at it. The Gujarat unit of the Congress last week tweeted a photograph of a “polluted” Ganga in an attempt to discredit the BJP’s claims of a “clean” Ganga. The photograph in question was an old one—first published a good month before Modi was sworn in as Prime Minister in May 2014. Even the social media head of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) tweeted a 2013 video to contend the Congress was incapable of museting a popular mandate.

But, all this is only part of the story—three phases of the elections are yet to be held. You will need to keep watching this space.