Police to counter fake news on WhatsApp

by Admin — last modified Jun 26, 2018 01:45 AM
State police across Karnataka, Assam, Telangana and Kerala are designing social media campaigns as an antidote to fake news on messaging apps like WhatsApp following claims that these platforms have been used to incite violence across several locations in recent weeks.

The article by Nilesh Christopher and Naveen Menezes was published in the Times of India on June 14, 2018. Pranesh Prakash was quoted. Also see the story on Economic Times here.

Alarmed by the rising incidence of attacks on individuals as a result of rumours spread by users of the app — owned by social network Facebook — law enforcement authorities across several states are intensifying community policing using the same platforms.

Bengaluru police commissioner T Suneel Kumar said the department is creating awareness about #FakeRumourOnChildKidnappers on social media as well as by distributing pamphlets across the city. “We have not written to either Facebook or WhatsApp as they would take their own time to respond. Instead, we have alerted our police personnel to be aware of repetition and are reaching out to people through different means,” he told ET.

Last month, a mob lynched a man in a Bengaluru locality suspecting him to be a child abductor.


This was preceded by widely circulated videos on WhatsApp warning people about kidnappers being on the prowl in the city. Police arrested 25 people including four women and a minor in connection with the case.

Incidents of lynching have also been reported across Assam, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, where fake news and videos about suspected child abductors distributed on WhatsApp caused alarm among villagers.

In Assam, over a dozen people have been arrested after a mob lynched two youngsters last week suspecting them to be child kidnappers. “We are monitoring social media and have chalked out counter strategies to ensure fake messages are not spread. The department also interacts with the public constantly,” DS Chauhan, Additional Commissioner of Police (Law and Order), Hyderabad City, told ET.

“I do not have the details on whether anyone is arrested for spreading fake messages. It’s difficult to trace who started the rumours,” he said.

In response to ET’s queries, a WhatsApp spokesperson said, “The privacy and security of our users is very important to WhatsApp. We've made it easy to block any phone number or report spam and we encourage people to report problematic messages so that we can take action. We’re also stepping up our education efforts so that people know about our safety features, as well as how to spot fake news or hoaxes on WhatsApp.”

In Telangana and Assam, special police teams have been formed to monitor social media and to track fake messages and prepare a counter response.

“In a week we get at least three calls of WhatsApp rumours causing unrest in various locations”, said an officer from the cybercrime branch of the Kerala Police.

“We have given them (people) directions to start counter propaganda immediately, and we are assisting them in dispelling the rumour. We try to identify the administrator of the (WhatsApp) group that is used to spread rumours,” said the officer. He said the social messaging app has, so far, not cooperated with the police on these efforts.

Cyber security analysts are divided on whether more can be done by social media platforms to counter the rising threat of fake news on these platforms. “This is clearly a case of a platform like WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) not doing enough. Just because WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted it does not mean their hands are tied,” said Pranesh Prakash, a fellow at the Centre for Internet and Society, a policy advocacy group.

“The WhatsApp application is linked to a mobile number, the platform has access to trace the individual who spread rumours,” said Prakash. They (social media networks) can “remind or signal to users about the terms of services when anyone spreads rumours,” he added.

India has the largest user base for both WhatsApp and Facebook with over 240 million people accessing the platform. WhatsApp is also testing a digital payment system using the homegrown UPI network in the country.

On the other hand, Apar Gupta, cofounder of Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), reckons the danger from rumours that spread on WhatsApp is not just a technology issue but also a societal one.

“Looking to decrease privacy in these platforms as a solution to curb fake news, or introducing a pre-screening mechanism to check every message that is sent is not a credible solution,” he said.

To be sure, WhatsApp is testing a new feature wherein messages that are forwarded carry the tagline saying ‘forwarded as received’ alerting users that it is not an original creation but just a forward. The feature has not been rolled to all users in India.