The Ministry of Electronics and IT (MEITY) has warned WhatsApp over the circulation of fake news on it’s app, which has led to a number of mob lynchings in the past few weeks. The ministry released a press release yesterday saying that recent killings of innocent people over provocative and irresponsibly circulated messages is deeply painful and regrettable. The ministry further says that the law and order bodies are going to look at the matter at their level but circulation of such messages over and over is a matter of serious concern. MEITY said that it has contacted WhatsApp’s senior management to look over the matter.

Deep disapproval of such developments has been conveyed to the senior management of the WhatsApp and they have been advised that necessary remedial measures should be taken to prevent proliferation of these fake and at times motivated/sensational messages. The Government has also directed that spread of such messages should be immediately contained through the application of appropriate technology.

Why this warning?

This warning has come from the ministry after the recent episodes of mob lynchings that took place in multiple states that were happened due to widely circulated WhatsApp messages. The first two incidents of lynching in the series were reported from Tamil Nadu on May 10 and May 11. The two cases were reported within twenty four hours where first a man and then a 60 year old woman were attacked by the crowd in the district of Tiruvannamalai under the suspicion of being child lifters.

A transgender was lynched by a crowd of over 500 people in Hyderabad later in the month on the suspicion of being a child lifter. After investigation a message warning against a Paridhi gang which had gone viral on social media was found.

A series of such incidents were reported from the states of Jharkhand, Telengana, Karnataka, Assam, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Gujarat, Tripura, Maharashtra in the span of two months. In total 16 mob lynchings have taken place which have resulted in death of 22 people. In most of the cases the victims were suspected of being child lifters or kidnappers on the basis of a viral social media message.

Circulation of fake news and propaganda getting passed as facts are turning out to be a major problem for India. Facebook and WhatsApp have more than 200 million active users each in India, and that number is only going to grow. The mediums have no gatekeeping and censorship, which, while enabling free speech, also makes means that they can be used to spread fake news. Many of the fake news messages or posts have an accompanying visual or audio media which makes them all the more convincing.

What is Facebook doing to deal with Fake News in India?

Facebook announced third party fact checking for India in the middle of April this year. The program began in Karnataka with a partnership with Bangalore based independent digital journalism initiative called BOOM. Other than this Facebook introduced a several other ways to deal with fake news like introducing features that let users report fake news and running PSAs to teach people on how to spot fake news. WhatsApp is also taking initiatives to combat fake news: a first step in that direction is captioning of messages as forwarded texts as “Forwarded”.

As we wrote yesterday, there are other platform changes that are required.