Here’s how WhatsApp is fighting fake news in India

What's up with fake news on WhatsApp?
What’s up with fake news on WhatsApp?

Image: HAYOUNG JEON/EPA-EFE/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK

WhatsApp is on the offensive.

In New Delhi on Wednesday, Facebook-owned WhatsApp held a press conference to share how it is tackling fake accounts and the spread of misinformation on its platform of 1.5 billion users

The conference was especially urgent because India will hold its elections in April — and India, site of WhatsApp’s biggest user base, is also where WhatsApp has seen dangerous abuse that led to violence and death

According to a report from ZDNet, WhatsApp has been able to automate a lot of the bot and spam catching-process, and even proactively prevent potential abuse. It bans 2 million accounts per month, and reportedly catches 75 percent of those accounts without human intervention.

Abuse takes the form of fake accounts and bots that are either spamming users, attempting to steal information, or even more nefarious ends, such as political and social manipulation. India’s populace has shown that it is susceptible to these sorts of schemes, because many WhatsApp users are new to the web, and therefore have lower levels of digital literacy. WhatsApp has undertaken public education campaigns to teach its users to be more wary of the messages and information they receive.

Of the 2 million accounts WhatsApp bans per month, some of them never even make it onto the platform. Apparently, WhatsApp is able to catch 20 percent of fake accounts during the registration process by comparing the locations of phone numbers and IP addresses. It is also able to determine whether an account is fake if it immediately starts engaging in a high level of activity right after sign up, particularly bulk messaging. This proactivity could mean that WhatsApp is able to detect the malevolent activity before it has the chance to spread far and wide.

Bulk messaging has been one of the ways that fake information has spread so quickly on WhatsApp, in India and elsewhere. It took steps to limit forwarding in 2018 by labeling forwarded messages as such, and limiting the number of people a message could be forwarded to to five.

But in addition to imposing user limits, WhatsApp has also reportedly gotten wiser to the way networks are abusing this feature. It has found software that lets abusers run multiple instances of the same account, and devices that can handle multiple IP cards. 

Whether WhatsApp’s measures will be enough to support the integrity of the April election remains to be seen. The government has already made demands of the platform to contain the abuse. And conveying a complicated messages about bots, spam, fake news, and manipulation, to inexperienced internet users — in a market of 200 million users in India — is no easy task.

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