WhatsApp has responded to the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MEITY) regarding the series of mob lynchings across the country which resulted in the deaths of 22 people. The deaths were provoked by viral rumours which spread on WhatsApp. The ministry had asked the platform to look into the matter and take measures to control the spread of fake and often sensational/provocative information being sent on it. 

Our strategy has been twofold:
First, to give people the controls and information they need to stay safe; and
Second, to work proactively to prevent misuse on WhatsApp.

WhatsApp said it will introduce/has introduced the following changes to combat misinformation:  

  • All forwarded messages will be labelled as ‘forwards’ to “let a user know if content they received was written by the person they know or a potential rumor from someone else.” This feature may not be very helpful as a person can generally identify a forwarded message (and believe them anyway). WhatsApp needs to explain to users what the forwarded tag is for and what it might mean in English and vernacular languages for the feature to work.
  • WhatsApp has introduced the WhatsApp Research Awards for Social Science and Misinformation, a set of awards that provide funding for independent research into combatting misinformation. The research is meant to be shared with WhatsApp, Facebook, and wider scholarly and policy communities. 
  • WhatsApp will begin fact-checking with the help of third-parties, an initiative which has been successful in Mexico and Brazil. WhatsApp also said it will “work to educate people about how to stay safe online and plans to launch a campaign on public safety” and will provide new material about misinformation and conduct workshops. 

WhatsApp says it has already introduced the following recent changes on the platform:

  • Changes to group chats, which give greater control to group admins to bring in accountability. However, most of the updates WhatsApp is referring to are irrelevant to combat misinformation control. Post the update, only admins can now change group icon and description, and remove another group member as admin, which isn’t enough.
  • ‘Restrict’ feature for group chats that will let admins control which participants can send messages on groups which will “help reduce the spread of unwanted messages into important group conversations – as well as the forwarding of hoaxes and other content.”

According to WhatsApp, their emphasis on privacy is making them compromise on the control they have over information that is circulated on the platform.

This focus on privacy brings many benefits, though as with all technology there trade-offs. And for WhatsApp, that’s the inability to see problematic content spreading through private

It has, however, said that it might have some control over spam messages and will be working in controlling spam, which it has tried to do in the past as well.

Full text of the letter

Thank you for your letter dated July 2. Like the Government of India, we’re horrified by these terrible acts of violence and wanted to respond quickly to the very important issues you have raised. We believe this is a challenge that requires government, civil society and technology companies to work together.

Our strategy has been twofold:

  • First, to give people the controls and information they need to stay safe; and
  • Second, to work proactively to prevent misuse on WhatsApp.

Product Controls

WhatsApp cares deeply about people’s safety which is why we designed our app with security in mind from the get go. For example, you can block anyone from messaging you with just one tap. And if someone who is not in your address book sends you a message, WhatsApp automatically asks if you want to block or report that user. We’ve also recently made a number of changes to group chats to prevent the spread of unwanted information, which we believe will address some of the specific issues you raise.

In Mid-May, we added new protections to prevent people from adding others back into groups which they had left — a form of misuse we think it is important to correct. And last week, we launched a new setting that enables administrators to decide who gets to send messages within individual groups. This will help reduce the spread of unwanted messages into important group conversations — as well as the forwarding of hoaxes and other content.

In addition, we have been testing a new label in India that highlights when a message has been forwarded versus composed by the sender. This could serve as an important signal for recipients to think twice before forwarding messages because it lets a user know if content they received was written by the person they know or a potential rumor from someone else. We plan to launch this new feature soon.

Finally, just yesterday we announced a new project to work with leading academic experts in India to learn more about the spread of misinformation, which will help inform additional product improvements going forward — as well as help our efforts to block bad actors (see below) going forward.

Digital Literacy and Fact-checking

We are also working hard to educate people about how to stay safe online. For example, we regularly put out information that explains how to spot fake news and hoaxes — and we plan to run long term public safety ad campaigns in India, given its importance to us at WhatsApp. As a starting point, we will soon publish new educational materials around misinformation and conduct our news literacy workshops.

This year, for the first time, we also started working with fact checking organizations to identify rumors and false news — and respond to them — using WhatsApp.

  • For example, during the recent Presidential election in Mexico, we worked closely with the news consortium Verificado. Users sent thousands of rumors to Verificado’s WhatsApp account and in turn were provided regular updates on what was accurate and what was false.
  • In Brazil, we are now working with 24 news organizations on a similar program — the learnings from our experiences in both countries will help us fight fake news in India.
  • Already in India, the fact checking organization Boom Live is available on WhatsApp and has published numerous important reports on the source of the rumors that have contributed to the recent violence.

This kind of work gives everyone a better understanding of the problematic fake news circulating on WhatsApp, and how it relates to misinformation being shared on other platforms. In addition, it’s a helpful resource right within WhatsApp where people can get answers about content they’ve been sent. It’s why we’re looking at how best to ramp up these efforts in India going forward.

Proactive Action to Tackle Abuse

As you know, WhatsApp retains limited information and is end-to-end encrypted. We use this technology to protect our user’s privacy and security. While WhatsApp messages can be highly viral, the way people use the app is by nature still very private. Many people (nearly 25 percent in India) are not in a group; the majority of groups continue to be small (less than ten people); and nine in ten messages are still sent from just one person to another.

People are increasingly using WhatsApp to get advice from their doctor, do business or communicate with their bank — as well as to chat with family and friends. They want to know these messages are private and secure — and that no-one else is reading them. This focus on privacy brings many benefits, though as with all technology there are trade offs. And for WhatsApp, that’s the inability to see problematic content spreading through private conversations on our app.

That said, we do have the ability to prevent spam, which includes some of the misinformation that can create mistrust and potentially violence. Because we cannot see the content of messages being sent over WhatsApp we block messages based on user reports and by the manner in which they are sent. We use machine learning to identify accounts sending a high volume of messages (faster than any human could) and we are constantly working to improve our ability to stop unwanted automated messages.

We also respond to valid law enforcement requests to help them investigate crimes. And soon, we will start an engagement program with law enforcement officials around India so they are familiar with our approach and how we can be helpful. We also want to share best practices for how WhatsApp is used by local police as a resource for their community. For example, the police in Hyderabad have created a WhatsApp account that anyone can message with rumors that concern them. And by working with community leaders to get them using our latest features (see above), they can help keep their communities informed about hoaxes circulating locally. As we have already seen, this can help save lives.

If you would like to talk further about the actions we are taking and our plans going forward, please let us know. We believe that false news, misinformation and the spread of hoaxes are issues best tackled collectively: by government, civil society and technology companies working together. With the right action we can help improve everyone’s safety by ensuring communities are better equipped to deal with malicious hoaxes and false information — while still enabling people to communicate reliably and privately across India.