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.


Taliban confront fake news and social media in propaganda war

Updated 15 February 2019
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Taliban confront fake news and social media in propaganda war

  • The Taliban’s official spokesman now tweets real-time updates about battlefield operations
  • Its media arm stays in direct contact with journalists on a range of messaging apps

ISLAMABAD: Fighting “fake” news, wrestling with social media, and deploying an intern army — the Taliban’s sprawling propaganda machine embraces modernity even as the group vows to enforce Islamist controls on journalists if it returns to power.
Notorious for banning TV and radio under its iron-fisted 1996-2001 regime, the militants have proven surprisingly deft at adapting to the ever-changing nature of modern media.
The Taliban’s official spokesman now tweets real-time updates about battlefield operations and its media arm stays in direct contact with journalists on a range of messaging apps.
“Media is considered one side of the struggle,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP via Whatsapp.
“We are not against modern technology,” a senior Taliban source with links to the insurgents’ media wing told AFP.
“This is the need of the hour and using it is not against Islamic shariah.”
But the source admits his team struggles at times to control their own narrative.
High-profile interviews have taken place without the media wing’s knowledge, sparking hurried denials along with confusion over the identity of the interviewee and whether he can really claim to speak for the Taliban.
Unverified leaks to media outlets from alleged Taliban sources are frequent.
Fake or unauthorized accounts sprout often on social media, while their official Facebook pages and Twitter handles are regularly banned only to be restarted under another name.
Even the official spokesman, Mujahid, is widely believed to be not one man but a moniker used by the information wing to issue statements.
The operation can be dizzying, admits the Taliban source.
The increasingly refined production has not gone unnoticed, with NATO regularly briefing top officials on Taliban content.
“It gives us an idea of what the group is thinking about that day,” said Col. Knut Peters, spokesman for NATO’s Resolute Support mission in Kabul.
The casualty figures they release are often wildly exaggerated, but the group has been known to describe their operations more accurately, with fewer outlandish battlefield claims.
“The Taliban have discovered that truth has a greater impact than fiction,” said Graeme Smith, a consultant for International Crisis Group.
Journalists said insurgents are also often more responsive than the government.
“When a journalist was killed in Farah province, (a few) weeks back, I wrote to the Taliban spokesman, and I got the reply in minutes,” said A. Mujeeb Khalvatgar, the director of an Afghan media support group, who said he is still waiting for a statement from the president’s office.
Information remains difficult to verify, however. Pakistani senior journalist Tahir Khan, who showed AFP a stream of messages, photos and voice notes from the Taliban on his mobile phone, said the information was “not usually correct.”
But in a campaign like this, the battle for the truth might not matter. “This war... one major factor is psychological propaganda,” he added.
Its value is demonstrated by how high the media operation goes.
The Taliban leadership gives orders to a handful of high-ranking militants responsible for the group’s media strategy, the militant source said.
They work across five different language services — Pashto, Dari, English, Urdu and Arabic — with dozens of volunteers who produce multimedia content.
Print magazines target rural audiences without mobile phones, while slick propaganda videos and songs reach the illiterate.
The army of interns include journalism school students, along with IT experts who monitor the latest trends, the source claimed.
“They are servants of God, volunteers,” he said.
The Islamists maintained strict control over media during their brutal rule. Most foreign journalists fled the country, while Afghan reporters often worked undercover for fear of being violently harassed or accused of spying.
In the 17 years since the US invasion, Afghanistan’s media has flourished.
But their success has made them targets, starting in 2016, when the Taliban killed seven employees of popular TV channel Tolo — the first major attack on Afghan media since 2001.
Journalists have faced killings, attacks and abductions. In 2018 Afghanistan was ranked the most dangerous country for journalists in the world.
“Now (the Taliban are) using media a lot. It doesn’t mean they believe in freedom of expression,” said Khalvatgar.
“It means that they know how to use the media... as a propaganda tool, not as a right of the people.”
Meanwhile unprecedented talks between the Taliban and Washington have sparked fears of a potential US exit and a possible return to power for the insurgents.
The Taliban source said the group has no wish to shutter Afghan outlets — but journalists would have to comply with an unspecified “code of conduct” in line with Islamic shariah.
Female anchors, common in Afghanistan today, would not be allowed on camera.
“It’s better that they stay at home or join some other respectable profession,” said the Taliban source.
But foreign media would be welcomed, he claimed, unlike in the past.
“We sheltered Osama [bin Laden] and provided him all our respect because he was our guest,” he said.
“Everyone who comes from any other country will be our guest.”