WhatsApp launches campaign against fake news ahead of Lok Sabha polls

A young student administrator on a college group, a girl in a big city tracking life back at home on a family group, a group of friends exchanging forwards and recipes; all ordinary people leading regular humdrum lives, but in WhatsApp’s first ever campaign in the country they are all crusaders against fake news. As the country gears up for elections in 2019, WhatsApp, with its 200 million monthly active users in India according to Mark Zuckerberg,  is going all out to separate fact from fiction on its platform.

The messaging app has launched advertisements, workshops and a host of awareness initiatives on the subject. Its aim is clearly to create a more aware user but also, experts point out, keep the authorities at bay, especially as political parties employ every trick in the book to garner mass support.

The campaign that has been launched via three short films uses relatable everyday scenarios and ordinary people to drive home the point that every user has the power to slay the fake news demon. Apart from the films that are based on real life scenarios, WhatsApp has partnered with the New Delhi-based Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) to build awareness and instil a sense of responsibility among its subscribers.

DEF says close to 30 workshops have been conducted so far, reaching out to more than 3,000 persons in Tier II and Tier III cities across eight states, which included those that have recently concluded their elections. Over the next month, workshops will be conducted in Tripura, Assam and Maharashtra and thereafter in Phase II, the aim is to reach 31,000 more persons at the village level. “We hope these training workshops will help build an empathetic and conscious community of users who learn to respond rather than react to every message they receive,” says Osama Manzar, founder-director of DEF.

Santosh Desai, managing director and CEO of Future Brands who writes on media and society says, “While WhatsApp has introduced a lot of restrictions (on its platform), it is more like an insurance for them and the restrictions themselves aren’t entirely foolproof.” But the user has changed significantly over the years, in terms of its gullibility for fake content, he adds.  

The DEF-WhatsApp teams conducting user workshops say that the response so far has been overwhelming and also, instructive. In some places, for example, policemen were unaware of the concept of encryption. “So we explain what encryption is and how it works,” a team member reported. Manzar added that while the problem of misinformation is not restricted to rural areas alone, it is the rural population that majorly lacks access to alternative news sources for sake of verification. 

Besides, not every user (especially in the non-millennial demographic) is cognizant of the potential abuse of the data and information shared on the platform. “We enable communities to question the information they are consuming,” said one of the workshop conductors.

While the workshops are meant to create a one-one interaction, the print, radio and TV campaign is meant to create awareness. In July this year, the company launched the WhatsApp Misinformation and Social Science Research Awards and more recently it has commissioned a competitive set of global awards for researchers on misinformation on the app. All of this has helped the company gather a trove of use-case scenarios that are being used to address problems specific to the country.

One of the winning research scenarios from India noted how vulnerability to fake news is affected by socio-economic, demographic, or geographical factors and explored the patterns in forwarding particular types of information. Another explored whether platforms such as WhatsApp reinforce socio-political polarisation and so on. While WhatsApp is leaving no medium untouched in advertising its efforts and intentions, the question is whether this is a case of locking the stables after the horses have bolted.

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