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WhatsApp status leads to arrest of over 40 people in Karnataka

It brings into question steps taken by the platform to check disinformation.

A student’s status on WhatsApp has led to multiple arrests in Karnataka following violence that erupted over the weekend in the state’s Hubballi district. The 20-year-old student’s status allegedly contained a morphed picture of a mosque with a saffron-coloured flag atop it – which led to unrest after it was circulated by his classmate in WhatsApp groups, among the Muslim community of Hubballi, according to an Indian Express report.

A complaint was subsequently registered against the student, following which the police arrested him and his classmate. Over 40 other people were also reportedly taken into custody.

MediaNama reached out to Labhu Ram, Commissioner of Police for Hubballi-Dharwad with the following questions :

  1. How did the police find the accused student and his classmate?
  2. When was the student arrested? Under what charges?
  3. Was the status taken down by him before 24 hours?
  4. Under what charges was his classmate, who circulated his WhatsApp status, arrested?
  5. When was the Whatsapp status uploaded, is it true it was a morphed picture of a saffron flag on a mosque?
  6. Did anyone else also upload such a picture, causing any incitement?
  7. We’ve learnt other people have also been arrested in the case. Could you tell us the charges?

This is another in a growing line of incidents where content circulated on WhatsApp has spurred real-life violence in India.

WhatsApp’s new feature could increase misinformation, inauthentic behaviour

On April 14, WhatsApp announced the launch of a new feature called ‘Communities’ which would allow bringing separate groups under one umbrella, that is a community wherein groups can further be organised into smaller discussion groups and so on. Under this community, messages can be sent to ‘thousands of people’ at a time and admins can delete errant messages from everyone’s chats.

https://scontent.whatsapp.net/v/t39.8562-34/278344019_2101086136707982_3915804386405476625_n.png?ccb=1-5&_nc_sid=2fbf2a&_nc_ohc=_69w6OZO0agAX-MMwuj&_nc_ht=scontent.whatsapp.net&oh=01_AVwUsPUkXW8XSj7cLzusmOgkZdr7qQjtVZqG6rvFyQ1JPQ&oe=6262B0EA

But this feature could end up making what’s bad worse:

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“At present, many political parties — especially in India — use WhatsApp groups for spreading political messages, misinformation, disinformation and hate speech. They create hundreds of thousands of groups — and disseminate messages that get shared from group to group, as a waterfall effect.

(…) The introduction of Communities on WhatsApp allows for much better organisation for political parties: there can be better centralised control, and administrators will be able to send messages to thousands of users, who can then forward the messages to other groups, or perhaps other Communities that they may control. Instead of managing many groups on WhatsApp, and sending messages for further distribution to a group at a time, each admin may just need to manage a few communities, and be able to message hundreds of thousands of users in one go.”

However, in response to such queries, a WhatsApp spokesperson told the Economic Times that the objective behind the feature was to help people organise better as a result of its learnings from the pandemic.

“A spokesperson for WhatsApp said that the idea to build the Communities feature came largely from the pandemic where people used the platform to provide relief and mobilise help – be it for food, medication, hospital beds, oxygen and so on,” the report said.

Previous cases of WhatsApp leading to violence and arrests

  • In 2020, a leaked internal document revealed that WhatsApp was used to spread communal hatred before the Delhi riots took place in February 2020.
  • That same year, hysteria built up over WhatsApp groups and chats reportedly led to lynchings in Palghar district in Maharashtra
  • In 2018, multiple lynchings took place in various parts of the country due to rumours floated on WhatsApp groups.

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Written By

I cover health technology for MediaNama but, really, love all things tech policy. Always willing to chat with a reader! Reach me at anushka@medianama.com

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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