WhatsApp hits the road with skits to stamp out fake news in India

More than 200 million people in India use the WhatsApp service. (AFP)
Updated 12 October 2018
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WhatsApp hits the road with skits to stamp out fake news in India

  • The event is part of a major grassroots effort by WhatsApp to battle fake news
  • The drive follows intense government pressure for both Facebook and WhatsApp to fight fake news and rumor-mongering

JAIPUR, India: On a hot morning in India’s tourist mecca of Jaipur, an open truck painted in the signature lime-green colors of Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging service pulls into a dusty lane, where five men spill out and begin to perform a skit.
The event is part of a major grassroots effort by WhatsApp to battle fake news, which has triggered numerous lynchings in a country where 200 million people use the service, more than anywhere else in the world.
The actors soon draw a crowd as the play unveils how spreading misinformation online can stir up mob violence, especially in the countryside, where caste and religious prejudices run deep.
“Our society is better than theirs and that’s why you should hate them,” says one, citing one example of an incendiary text circulating on WhatsApp in India. “If you are truly one of us, spread this message.”
Such texts, pictures and videos aim to sow discord, warns another, as the viewers in the capital of India’s western desert state of Rajasthan are then told how to identify forwarded messages and use WhatsApp responsibly.
The drive follows intense government pressure for both Facebook and WhatsApp to fight fake news and rumor-mongering that have led to more than 30 deaths in about 70 lynching attempts since January 2017, data portal IndiaSpend says.
The campaign is not entirely altruistic. It is being run in conjunction with Reliance Jio, the fast-growing telecom carrier controlled by billionaire Mukesh Ambani that recently made WhatsApp available on its $20 JioPhone.
Instructions on how to install and use the app on the JioPhone, which has connected tens of millions of low-income Indians to the Internet for the first time, are also a part of the 10-city roadshow.
Hundreds of people from WhatsApp and Jio are helping drive the campaign, with some WhatsApp employees having flown in from California, a WhatsApp spokeswoman said in an emailed statement, adding that the company did not reveal financial details. A source familiar with the matter said the costs were mostly being paid by WhatsApp.
WhatsApp’s efforts to battle fake news in India include a limit on forwarded messages in a market where more users pass around messages, photographs and videos than any other.
It has launched newspaper and radio campaigns and tied up with Delhi-based non-profit Digital Empowerment Foundation to develop a digital literacy curriculum for India.
The company is also training police and law enforcement officials to use WhatsApp in helping them do their jobs.
“Our goal is to drive one of the largest coordinated public education efforts on misinformation to date anywhere in the world,” WhatsApp said.
India’s technology minister has demanded the company do more, including working out how to trace the origin of “sinister” messages. But WhatsApp says it will not take such steps, which would require it to weaken encryption and other privacy protections.
It is not clear how much the public information campaigns will change people’s behavior. But in Jaipur, at least some of the messages seem to be getting through.
“I learnt how to quit a WhatsApp group created by strangers,” said Bhawani Singh Rathore, a 35-year-old teacher, who began using the service just months ago and attended.
“And I also learned how to identify a forwarded message and to not send it ahead without checking its accuracy,” he said.


What We Are Reading Today: Debating War and Peace by Jonathan Mermin

Updated 15 October 2018
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What We Are Reading Today: Debating War and Peace by Jonathan Mermin

  • Mermin shows that if there is no debate over US policy in Washington, there is no debate in the news
  • The author constructs a new framework for thinking about press-government relations

The First Amendment ideal of an independent press allows American journalists to present critical perspectives on government policies and actions; but are the media independent of government in practice? Here Jonathan Mermin demonstrates that when it comes to military intervention, journalists over the past two decades have let the government itself set the terms and boundaries of foreign policy debate in the news.

Analyzing newspaper and television reporting of US intervention in Grenada and Panama, the bombing of Libya, the Gulf War, and US actions in Somalia and Haiti, he shows that if there is no debate over US policy in Washington, there is no debate in the news. 

Journalists often criticize the execution of US policy, but fail to offer critical analysis of the policy itself if actors inside the government have not challenged it. Mermin ultimately offers concrete evidence of outside-Washington perspectives that could have been reported in specific cases, and explains how the press could increase its independence of Washington in reporting foreign policy news. 

The author constructs a new framework for thinking about press-government relations, based on the observation that bipartisan support for US intervention is often best interpreted as a political phenomenon, not as evidence of the wisdom of US policy. Journalists should remember that domestic political factors often influence foreign policy debate. The media, Mermin argues, should not see a Washington consensus as justification for downplaying critical perspectives.