WhatsApp has launched ‘Checkpoint Tipline’ with media startup Proto to receive and verify suspicious information and rumours on WhatsApp during the elections, set to begin in a week. Users can send rumours to the number (+91-9643-000-888) which Proto will classify as true, false, misleading, disputed or out of scope or any other related information. Proto will review rumors containing pictures, video links, or text and will cover four regional languages including Hindi, Telugu, Bengali and Malayalam, other than English.

Proto said the project was meant to create a database of rumours to study misinformation during the elections for WhatsApp’s research project Checkpoint. “As more data flows in, it will identify the most susceptible or affected issues, locations, languages, regions, and more, said the company’s founders. Proto will submit the tipline’s findings to the the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) to help others learn from the project.

Proto has roped in media organizations Dig Deeper Media and Meedan – who have worked in misinformation-related projects in other countries – to develop the verification and research framework. Meedan will work on verification of the rumors and maintain a database of the rumors via their ‘Check’ platform, which it has integrated with the WhatsApp Business API to receive and respond to messages at scale. The Check platform was developed for Mexican elections last year and French elections in 2017.

Reuters reported that it forwarded a message containing misinformation to WhatsApp, but was awaiting response over two hours later. WhatsApp has teamed up with Nasscom Foundation to run workshops to encourage people to stop sharing misinformation.

Some challenges

1. Too late?: Elections are a only week away and will last until May 19. How will users across four languages become aware of, and actually use the tipline in such a short period of time? Since its not an inbuilt tool, WhatsApp will have to advocate for the tool to get users reports at a scale.

2. What about dealing with scale and speed?: Its unclear how large Proto’s team across all four languages is. It’ll be interesting to see how Proto would deal with the scale of verification at an effective speed. Additionally, the election period will demand speed and accuracy in responding to messages. Rumours and misinformation are prone to spreading fast, and a slow fact-checks can be redundant.

Why is WhatsApp so worried?

  1. Spread of fake news: WhatsApp has been blamed for the spread of rumours and fake news, which have led to the deaths of 40 people being lynched in India over the past two years. The platform has been leveraged by political parties for campaigning, propaganda, and political messaging. The deaths have triggered government scrutiny of the platform and raised issues regarding privacy of users vs. public safety.
  2. The demand for platform responsibility: Its end-to-end encryption feature has irked the Indian government, which has demanded that the platform have traceability and accountability. Traceability would imply breaking end-to-end encryption, a design that is central to WhatsApp.

Also read: We need a better approach to Whatsapp and traceability