India tells WhatsApp to curb fake news after lynchings

Messaging service rapped for attacks set off by false rumours

NEW DELHI • India has told Facebook-owned WhatsApp to take "immediate action" after a spate of horrific lynchings sparked by false rumours being shared on the hugely popular smartphone messaging service.

More than 25 people have been killed in India in recent months after rumours were spread on smartphones about child kidnappers, thieves and sexual predators.

The attacks - usually targeting outsiders - have left the authorities scrambling to mount an effective response, with awareness campaigns and public alerts having limited effect.

The rise in such incidents prompted the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology on Tuesday to ask WhatsApp to take immediate steps to prevent the circulation of false information and provocative content.

The ministry said the law enforcement authorities were taking steps to apprehend culprits responsible for the killings, but the repeated flow of fake news messages on WhatsApp - which has more than 200 million users in India - was also a matter of deep concern.

The ministry said WhatsApp "cannot evade accountability and responsibility" when such services are abused by users to spread such misinformation.

"The government has also conveyed in no uncertain terms that WhatsApp must take immediate action to end this menace and ensure that (its) platform is not used for such mala fide activities," it added in a sternly worded statement.

In a letter to the ministry dated Tuesday, WhatsApp said: "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 that false news, misinformation and the spread of hoaxes are issues best tackled collectively: by government, civil society and technology companies working together."

The messaging service said it is giving users controls and information to help them stay safe, and that it plans to run long-term public-safety advertising campaigns.

"As a starting point, we will soon publish new educational materials around misinformation and conduct our news literacy workshops," WhatsApp said.

"With the right action we can help improve everyone's safety."

The firm has recently added a feature to its app preventing users from re-adding former members of messaging groups, and has enabled group administrators to decide who can send messages.

It is also testing the labelling of forwarded messages.

The spate of lynchings started in May last year in eastern India after rumours on WhatsApp about child kidnappers led to the killing of six men.

The same misinformation has since resurfaced, with attacks reported in at least 11 states recently.

On Sunday, five men were bludgeoned to death in Maharashtra state by a crazed mob, and last week a "rumour buster" official tasked with warning the public against such hoaxes was killed in north-eastern Tripura.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 05, 2018, with the headline 'India tells WhatsApp to curb fake news after lynchings'. Print Edition | Subscribe