Two Assamese young men left from Guwahati in their car to explore the natural beauty of their home state. While returning, it became dark and they lost their way. They stopped in a village to ask for directions. Unbeknownst to the young men, the villagers were already under stress because of a video clip about child-lifting they had received on WhatsApp. To the villagers the duo looked suspicious because of their long hair. One thing led to another, and a mob of 250 people attacked the men, beating them so mercilessly that they lost their lives.
This was one of a spate of mob-lynching incidences which took place in many places in India last year, all incited by the same video clip. It was an edited version of a longer promotional video produced by an NGO in Karachi, Pakistan, to spread awareness about growing cases of child abductions in the city.
The shorter version left out parts that clearly indicated that it was a promotional video. As a result, a motorcyclist coming and abducting a child from the street in the video, which was actually an enactment, looks like a live footage of a real incident. The video went viral on WhatsApp, emotionally disturbing everybody who received it.
To counter such trends, WhatsApp, in partnership with NGO, Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), designed a series of workshops titled ‘Fighting Fake News’ to reach out to local administration, NGOs, communities, students and several other stakeholders to initiate awareness about countering fake news and misinformation.
During a workshop in Palghar, Maharashtra, a schoolteacher confessed that the child-lifting video played on her emotions as a mother and she forwarded it to all the parents in her circle.
Technology is just a tool in the hands of people. It can be extremely beneficial if used well, and if used irresponsibly, it could cause immense damage. WhatsApp has over 200 million users in India alone. So, any message shared on it has the potential of reaching a large number of people in a very short time.
At workshops, I’ve often heard participants casually remarking, “It’s just one forward.” They often don’t see the broader picture, how each forward contributes to the virality of the message. Hence, the primary agenda of the workshop was to address socio-behavioural pattern of the people. It’s important to understand messages in terms of its category – whether it is real, fake, opinion or rumour.
Last year, a rumour about film star Amitabh Bachchan’s death went viral on WhatsApp and caused much distress to his family, friends and fans. Some participants in my workshops said they knew it was a hoax, and yet they forwarded it because their family and friends would’ve heard it from somewhere else anyway.
BBC conducted a survey in which they found that people are more inclined to believe a message that resonates with their predilection. Indians especially are more likely to believe in anything in the name of nationalism. A piece of fake news, about ‘Jana Gana Mana’ judged as the best national anthem in the world by UNESCO, found much traction on social media.
When we started the workshops we primarily focused on the states that were late last year preparing for assembly elections – Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Mizoram, Rajasthan and Telangana. The US elections in 2014 and Brazil elections in 2018 have shown how fake news can be strategically exploited to swing votes. In fact, Brazil elections have become infamous as WhatsApp elections.
Our main focus groups were police, who are in the firing line when social harmony is compromised, and students, who are the most tech-savvy and vulnerable group of all.
We observed that the understanding of technology among police personnel is extremely low. They came to the workshops expecting us to provide them with ultimate solution to catch the offenders who use WhatsApp to spread fake news. They were sceptical towards end-to-end encryption championed by WhatsApp, which protects the privacy of users.
The workshops worked towards bringing about a mindset change. Fake news and misinformation cannot be addressed by blocking the internet or curbing the rights of digital citizens. Digital maturity is imperative for a sustainable solution.
A WhatsApp team is constantly upgrading their technology to counter fake news and misinformation on its platform. Now every forwarded message carries a ‘forwarded’ label. They have also restricted the number of times one can forward a message on WhatsApp – five at one time. One can immediately block people who are spreading unverified information on WhatsApp.
Photographs and videos are being used extensively to spread fake news, which have much deeper impact on the senses. Techniques like ‘image reverse search’ to verify fake photos drew much engagement from the participants, but advancing technology is creating new challenges.
Deepfake uses ‘Artificial Intelligence (AI)’ to create videos by lip-synching misleading words into the mouths of well-known personalities that they have never spoken. It was experimented with a video featuring former US president Barack Obama and results were mind-boggling. They look impossibly real and are not easily verifiable.
In this scenario, fact-checking organisations like Alt News and BoomLive have a bigger role to play. ICT officers in police departments at the district level have been trained through workshops.
During the Rajasthan assembly elections some news organisations came together to form ‘Ekta News Coalition’ with the purpose of verifying fake news and misinformation making rounds on social media and private messaging platforms. WhatsApp provided them with an application programming interface (API). It was the first-of-its-kind collaboration anywhere in India to counter fake news and misinformation.
We conducted 40 workshops in 11 states, and thereafter reached out to grassroots communities through our specially trained local trainers. Almost 35,000 people were covered in our ‘Fighting fake News’ workshops.
Our findings suggested that on an average people spend five to seven hours on WhatsApp. Most of them are part of at least one to five groups. Almost 45 percent claimed that they don’t believe messages forwarded to them on WhatsApp. Some 64 percent people were not aware of encryption. As many as 49 percent are aware of the ‘forwarded’ label.
It has been observed by WhatsApp that restricting the forwarding to five has decreased the dissemination of fake news to some extent.
Fake news has become a lucrative business for those who are creating it for money. It has become a potent tool for political parties and groups with vested interests to influence people to achieve their nefarious ends.
We witnessed how the Pulwama incident was used to play upon the fears and biases of people through misinformation.
“When you receive a message, close your eyes for five minutes and think what kind of effect it will have on the receiver if you forward it.” These words were spoken by the superintendent of police of a district. He continued, “If you believe that it will have a negative effect, refrain from forwarding it.”
With more people rapidly becoming digital with cheap smartphones and data in India, a sustained and collective effort is required for a meaningful impact when it comes to countering fake news. Whether we like it or not, we’re in for a long haul.
Guria is deputy programme manager with Digital Empowerment Foundation.
(This article appears in the June 15, 2019 edition)