Blaming The Messenger (App): WhatsApp Takes The Blame In India Over Violence

from the this-doesn't-help dept

You may have heard over the past few weeks that there's been some mob violence in India in response to totally false information that is being spread. But if you've heard about it, it's almost certainly in conjunction with a lot of finger pointing not at the people spreading the misinformation, or those, you know, lynching people based on false information. Instead, the blame is being squarely placed... on the app where the misinformation is being spread: WhatsApp.

A mob in India lynched five people after rumors spread by WhatsApp messages prompted suspicion that they were child abductors, the latest in a spate of violent crimes linked to the messaging service.

The victims were killed in Dhule district of the western state of Maharashtra on Sunday morning after locals accused them of being part of a gang of "child lifters," police said.

It was the fourth time in recent weeks that WhatsApp messages have inspired deadly attacks in India.

This has resulted in many, many calls for WhatsApp (and its parent company, Facebook) to "do something" about this. Indeed, the Indian government has more or less demanded that WhatsApp stop "false messages" from being spread on its app. Of course, that's... not easy. It's not easy for a variety of reasons, both technical and cultural. On the technical side, WhatsApp is (famously, and for very good and helpful reasons) using end-to-end encryption. So no one at WhatsApp/Facebook can see what's in those messages. That's a good thing (especially for everyone whining about how Facebook sucks up too much data about us). No one should want WhatsApp to backdoor that encryption in any way, because that just creates even more problems.

And then of course, there's the cultural side of this. Even if WhatsApp could read the messages, how could it possibly know what was legit and what was not. And how could it determine that fast enough to stop a mob from going nuts.

WhatsApp has tried to explain all of this to the Indian government -- and rather than understanding these issues, many people seem to be screaming about how this is Facebook/WhatsApp "ignoring" its responsibility.

That doesn't mean things can't be done. Nikhil Pahwa wrote up a thoughtful analysis of how to best tackle the problem noting (correctly) upfront that "This is a complex problem with no single solution: there is no silver bullet here." Importantly, Pahwa notes that many of the "solutions" are not dependent on WhatsApp doing anything, but rather better law enforcement, counter speech efforts, user education and more. He does have some suggestions for how WhatsApp could make a few changes that would create a level of friction for public messages and publicly sharing content -- including tagging public messages with a unique ID tied to the original message creator.

But... there are also potential unintended consequences with these approaches. And others reasonably point out that activists and dissidents could potentially be seriously hurt by some of the proposed suggestions:

And, WhatsApp does appear to be trying to do something. A new version has apparently included a "suspicious link detector." If you're wondering how that's possible with end-to-end encryption, it works locally on your phone. Of course, that also probably limits its effectiveness. It appears to at least notice "suspicious" characters that are designed to mimic more standard characters to fake more well known sites. But it's unclear how much that will actually help.

Thankfully, at least some are pointing out that blaming WhatsApp makes no sense, and the country's own government really has itself to blame.

The fact that such misinformation not only fuels citizens’ paranoia, but also causes them to take matters into their own hands in droves, is indicative of a lack of faith in the machinery meant to maintain law and order in the country, a lack of understanding of the consequences of participating in these activities, and an inability to find truth beyond the realm of their messaging inbox.

That article, at The Next Web, by Abhimanyu Ghoshal points out that rather than the Indian government demanding WhatsApp fix the problem, it might want to consider using WhatsApp to try to counter the narrative:

Instead of blaming WhatsApp, India’s government needs to tackle the larger issues that are making its people paranoid and vulnerable to the viral spread of lies. Hell, it could even use WhatsApp to do that.

Last year, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is currently in power in the country, was reportedly working to set up roughly 5,000 WhatsApp groups to spread its campaign messaging for the 2018 assembly elections across the southern state of Karnataka, which is home to some 61 million people.

For starters, it should launch a campaign to encourage people to question the veracity of information they receive via social media and messaging platforms. It also needs to remind people about the laws that they must adhere to within the country’s borders.

It's obviously problematic that misinformation is leading to such violence and death. And, obviously, there's a lot of interest in how these messages are spreading so rapidly using apps like WhatsApp. But we shouldn't get so focused on the shiny new thing as the actual point of failure. There are much larger societal and governmental issues at play. Blaming the app may be politically convenient, but it is not accurate, and is unlikely to help in either the short or the long run.


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Jul 2018 @ 2:03pm

    Governments like blaming the tools, and getting the banned or heavily restricted. That is because it is much easier than going after the criminals in the short term, and tackling the social issues that cause these problems, like rampant poverty. in the longer term.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Spyder, 9 Jul 2018 @ 3:31pm

      Re:

      It's more like "Government like blaming the tools they cannot control".

      No government has banned PSTN or mobile telephones because some people might use them to spread lies, propaganda, plot against the state, etc. Why? Because Governments can monitor, listen to the conversations, identify those who are doing what the Government doesn't like, and regulate the activities on those systems.

      They can't (effectively) do that with many social media apps. So they go on the PR attack, blaming them for all the ills of their society, in the hope to build enough support to either heavily neuter the the apps/platforms functionality, or to shut them down entirely.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    John Smith, 9 Jul 2018 @ 8:46pm

    Having been targeted by internet mobs based on false information, I'll check in and say that the platforms shoulde given TOTAL IMMUNITY.

    Section 230 is a great way to let evil (the liars) and stupidity (the mob) reveal itself, much like Trump caused many racists and sexists to reveal themselves. Anyone who acts out based on internet lies is self-selecting out of the gene pool at this point.

    Now we don't have to regulate the internet platforms to boycott their sponsors, or to protes by poinging out that they are sponsoring lynch-mob violence. Also how can we believe advertising if the internet platforms are immune when it's false? Don't regulate, bot don't spend money, either.

    Now, when we meet someone, if they use the internet we know they are a privacy risk, since they will go searching for information on people, are obviously too stupid to differentiate truth and lies, and are therefore not worth knowing. Social media may be "cool" now but so was Studioi 54 until the velvet rope excluded too many people.

    Don't hesitate to send the government the bill for this either. Lose your job to Doxing? Disability. Get stalked out of your home? Subsidized housing. Government doesn't act? Psych hostpial, social worker, some bean counter frees up the bed by expediting housing, all because some mass-killer had an internet grudge and others were willing to be their pawns.

    If you want to create a world where the internet is more valuable than my reputation or my life, that is a renegotiation of the social contract. we are no longer allies but merely sharing a planet with different goals, anid you're way too much of a risk for anyone with a brian to even say hello to. You won't miss us, because you'll be out of the loop, just like Apes don't watch television so it must not exist on their plane.

    Whose behavior si more sustainable? A species that prosecutes lies so that they don't spread like a cancer, or one which allows people tobe tricked, harmed, even killed, at tremendous cost to the government, while those who get rich can also enable piracy, destroy entire industries and the tax base, effectively making financial royalty out of tech firms, and of course the lawyers who lobbied for the laws that created the mess they can clean up profitably.

    Since you have no problem with a system that destroys individuals, you no longer get the benefit of the doubt, and anything you post is presumed to be in self-interest. There's no need to see you stand by those who enable these mobs more than once. You've already revealed yourself. Smart people will notice and adjust their behavior accordingly, while the next will be part of the next internet mob.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 12 Jul 2018 @ 7:41pm

      Re:

      This coming from the jackass who screams about Google all the time.

      Sorry, John. You've cried wolf one time too many.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 9 Jul 2018 @ 11:55pm

    Social media??

    REALLY..
    1 person says something STUPID and everyone Runs amok..??
    IT WASNT NEWS...IT was 1 person saying something STUPID..

    Fun part...TRACK THEM.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Jul 2018 @ 6:59am

    and the proof that it was who it says it was that spread the rumors? it could be someone totally different, even someone from the government itself, just to get yet another excuse to clamp down on the internet and it use by ordinary people!! try to imagine what that is going to be like once governments and the entertainment industries dictate who can do what on the internet, because that's the way we're headed!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Wendy Cockcroft, 11 Jul 2018 @ 5:45am

    Due Process is not an impediment to justice

    You know how I keep on banging on about due process not being an impediment to justice?

    You know how, in pop culture, due process is often presented as an impediment to justice ("They got off on a technicality!"), so some mad vigilante with an attitude and snappy one-liners has to go and kick some ass to put things right?

    Am I the only one seeing the connection here?

    India has a thriving movie industry. It also has a messy sectarian problem which people often try to solve by brutally attacking each other. Add to that the massive overpopulation in urban areas, appalling poverty, ignorance, and people willing to take advantage of all that, and honestly, I'm surprised things aren't worse. Did I mention the corrupt police and politicians? They're left over from the Imperial era and their attitudes haven't changed much since then.

    Basically, it's not a social media problem or a messaging app problem, it's a social problem. There is no magic bullet but that doesn't mean there are no solutions. People need to learn to get along and respect for the rule of law is part of that. The law and the enforcers thereof need to do their flippin' job properly.

    Ah, sod it, let's blame Facebook for All The Things!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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