Lynching deaths: Govt warns WhatsApp over fake news triggering violence

The government on Tuesday directed WhatsApp to take urgent steps to prevent spread of "irresponsible and explosive messages" through its platform amid recent cases of lynching provoked by posts circulated on popular messaging apps.

Conveying its deep disapproval to the top brass of WhatsApp, the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MEITY) stated that the Facebook-owned company "cannot evade accountability and responsibility", according to an official statement.

The warning to WhatsApp comes in the wake of a spate of incidents involving lynching of innocent people because of certain "fake and motivated" messages being circulated on the widely used messaging app.

Terming the "unfortunate killings" in states like Assam, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tripura and West Bengal as "deeply painful and regrettable", the IT Ministry said the abuse of platforms like WhatsApp "for repeated circulation of such provocative content" is a matter of deep concern.

"MEITY has taken serious note of these irresponsible messages and their circulation in such platforms. Deep disapproval of such developments has been conveyed to the senior management of the WhatsApp and they have been advised that necessary remedial measures should be taken to prevent proliferation of these fake and at times motivated/ sensational messages," the statement said.

The government directed the company to immediately contain the spread of such messages through application of appropriate technology, even as law and order machinery takes steps to apprehend the culprits.

Noting that miscreants were repeatedly circulating provocative messages triggering a spate of violence, it said the government has "conveyed in no uncertain terms that WhatsApp must take immediate action to end this menace and ensure that their platform is not used for such malafide activities".

Over the past few months, there have been a number of instances where mobs were instigated by fake WhatsApp messages.

One such incident took place in a village in Dhule district of Maharashtra, where five people were lynched to death by villagers who reportedly suspected them of being child-lifters. According to police, there had been rumours that a gang of child lifters was active in the area.

WhatsApp to check misinformation with research awards

WhatsApp on Tuesday said it would be instituting awards for research on "spread of misinformation" on its platform, as the popular messaging app looks to address concerns over circulation of fake messages and videos. "WhatsApp cares deeply about the safety of our users. Through this new project, we look forward to working with leading academic experts in India to learn more about how online platforms are used to spread misinformation," a WhatsApp spokesperson said. The spokesperson said the this local research would help the company build upon recent changes it has made within WhatsApp and support broad education to help people spot false news and hoaxes.

In a blog post, the company said WhatsApp Research Awards would provide funding for independent research proposals that are designed to be shared with WhatsApp, Facebook, and wider scholarly and policy communities. 

These "unrestricted monetary awards" would offer investigators the freedom to deepen and extend their existing research portfolio, it added.

Recently, there have been a spate of lynching cases across various states in India that were purportedly triggered by WhatsApp messages.

The government today sent out a stern warning to the Facebook-owned platform to take urgent steps to prevent the spread of "irresponsible and explosive messages" and said it cannot evade its accountability on the issue.

India is the largest base for WhatsApp that has over 1.5 billion users globally. It has over 200 million users in India.

With respect to research on 'spread of misinformation', WhatsApp said one of the focus areas would be election-related information.


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