WhatsApp limits forwarding in India after lynchings

Facebook Inc's WhatsApp is rolling out measures to rein in messages forwarded by users, the messaging app said, after the spread of rumours led to several killings in India and sparked calls for action from authorities.

Move comes as government warns of legal action amid spread of malicious rumours

NEW DELHI • WhatsApp yesterday announced limits on the forwarding of messages by its 200 million Indian users in an effort to stop a spate of horrific lynchings and to assuage government threats of legal action in its biggest market.

More than 20 people have been butchered by crazed mobs across India in the past two months after being accused of child kidnapping and other crimes in viral messages circulated wildly on WhatsApp.

The Indian government, scrambling to find a response, threatened to take WhatsApp to court on Thursday, saying the medium for spreading malicious rumours "cannot evade responsibility and accountability". "If (WhatsApp) remains mute spectators, they are liable to be treated as abettors and thereafter face consequent legal action," said the Information Technology Ministry.

The Facebook-owned firm responded yesterday with an announcement that it will test limiting the ability to forward messages and cap at five the number of contacts or groups that messages can be forwarded to. It said it will also remove the "quick forward button" next to media messages, making the sending on of messages more cumbersome.

"We believe that these changes - which we'll continue to evaluate - will help keep WhatsApp the way it was designed to be: a private messaging app," a statement said.

Worldwide, the company will limit the number of forwards to 20 other groups, a spokesman said.

LEGAL ACTION THREAT

If (WhatsApp) remains mute spectators they are liable to be treated as abettors and thereafter face consequent legal action.

INDIA'S INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY MINISTRY, saying WhatsApp cannot evade responsibility and accountability.

REMEDIAL MEASURES

We believe that these changes - which we'll continue to evaluate - will help keep WhatsApp the way it was designed to be: a private messaging app.

WHATSAPP,on measures to make forwarding of messages more cumbersome.

Under pressure from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government, the company had already announced new features to help users identify messages that have been forwarded. It has bought full-page ads in Indian newspapers with tips on how to spot misinformation.

The ministry also called on WhatsApp to enable the traceability of messages when an official request is made. But the platform yesterday said its messages would stay "end-to-end encrypted".

Lynchings are nothing new in India, but the spread of smartphones - there are a billion-plus handsets and data is cheap - to even the most remote corners has enabled rumours to be shared at lightning speed. In India, people forward on WhatsApp more messages, photos, and videos than any other country in the world, the company says.

The latest incident last week saw a 27-year-old software engineer beaten to death by a crowd of more than 2,000 people in the southern state of Karnataka after he and his friends offered chocolates to local children. Fatal attacks have also been carried out on Muslims by "cow protection" groups roaming highways and inspecting livestock trucks. Cows are sacred to the majority Hindu community.

The Indian authorities have launched awareness campaigns and patrols and imposed Internet blackouts in some areas but the impact has been limited. WhatsApp is in talks with the government on how to tackle spam messages ahead of upcoming elections, and bringing in a fake news verification model similar to one used recently in Mexico.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 21, 2018, with the headline 'WhatsApp limits forwarding in India after lynchings'. Print Edition | Subscribe