by Elton Gomes
WhatsApp is taking comprehensive steps to restrict the spread of rumours through the platform. In its latest offering, the messaging service is testing a new feature that will enforce a forwarding limit on all types of media, including videos and photos, which are shared on the platform. The Indian Express reported that in India, WhatsApp will be testing a lower limit of five chats at once, and will then disable the quick forward button next to the media file, whether it’s an image or a video.
In other words, the new restriction means that if any type of media is forwarded five times from the same number, then WhatsApp will not permit the media to be forwarded further. The feature has not been fully launched in India yet, and users were able to forward the same media file more than five times at once.
It is unclear as to how the company zeroed down on the lower limit of five times. “In India — where people forward more messages, photos, and videos, than any other country in the world — we’ll also test a lower limit of five chats at once and we’ll remove the quick forward button next to media messages,” the company said in a statement, as per the Economic Times.
What changes has WhatsApp made in the past?
WhatsApp has taken several steps in an effort to curb misinformation and rumours on its platform. Recently, in July, the company was offering research grants to researchers to help it restrict the spread of “misinformation.” The company was offering up to $50,000 for proposals that “foster insights into the impact of technology on contemporary society in this problem space” including election-related content, digital literacy and “detection of problematic behavior within encrypted systems,” the Washington Post reported.
The company then began testing a suspicious link detecting feature that flagged messages with suspicious links. The feature was designed to scan links that are shared as messages, and it would flag the message with a red label if a potentially suspicious link was detected. The feature was reportedly known to warn users when they tried to open a suspicious link.
WhatsApp also enabled a feature that would indicate that a certain message has been forwarded, and has not been typed by the sender. The new feature added a “Forwarded” label to all messages that were forwarded. This was done in an attempt to help users determine whether a message has been originally created or has simply been forwarded.
What is the problem?
Rumours spread via WhatsApp have led to a series of gruesome mob lynchings across India. On July 2, NDTV reported that a mob of villagers killed five people suspected of being child kidnappers in Dhule, Maharashtra. The five men belonged to a nomadic community, and had gone to a house to ask for food. It was reported that one of them tried to speak to a child, but the villagers suspected him to be a kidnapper and began thrashing him on the spot. Other villagers joined them soon, and the five men were killed in mob violence.
Nilotpal Das and Abjijeet Nath were on their way to the hills when they stopped to ask for directions at Panjuri Kacharigaon, a village in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district. The villagers suspected them to be child abductors, dragged them out, and bludgeoned them to death.
Due to rumours via WhatsApp messages, seven people were beaten to death in two incidents in Jharkhand. The rumour in Hindi was doing the rounds since some time: “…Suspected child lifters are carrying sedatives, injections, spray, cotton and small towels. They speak Hindi, Bangla and Malyali. If you happen to see any stranger near your house immediately inform local police as he could be a member of the child lifting gang.” Since then, villagers along the borders of Seraikela-Kharsawan, East Singhbhum, and West Singhbhum districts picked up weapons and attacked strangers. Rumours via WhatsApp have claimed 19 lives in just two months. The latest incident has been recorded in Bidar district where Mohammad Azam and his friends were lynched by a 2,000 strong mob.
How has the government responded?
The government has asked WhatsApp for “more effective solutions” that can lead to increased “accountability and facilitate enforcement of law” as lynching-related incidents witness a rise in the country. The second letter to the company comes after the ministry of electronics and IT (MEITY) had issued a stern warning to WhatsApp earlier in July. The MEITY had then asked WhatsApp to stop the spread of “irresponsible and explosive messages filled with rumours and provocation” on its platform, as per the Economic Times. The government further warned the messaging company that failure to curb misinformation could make WhatsApp an “abettor” in a crime, and this can have legal consequences.
On the legal front, the Supreme Court urged the parliament to enact a law that sternly deals with mob lynching and cow vigilantism. “A special law in this field would instill a sense of fear for law amongst the people who involve themselves in such kinds of activities,” Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra wrote in his judgment, Bloomberg reported.
Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius
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