News Frontliner Web Desk, 02 April 2019: Facebook owned messaging platform WhatsApp on Tuesday launched a fact-checking ‘tipline’ for users in India ahead of elections in the country to check and control the spreading of false messages.
The fact-checking service consists of a phone number (+91-9643-000-888) where WhatsApp users can send doubtful messages if they think they might not be true or otherwise want them to be verified.
The messaging giant is working with a local media skilling startup, ‘Proto’, to run the fact-checking service — in conjunction with digital strategy consultancy house ‘Dig Deeper Media’ and San Francisco-based Meedan, which build tools for journalists for verifying submitted content.
The startup ‘Proto’ intends to use the submitted messages to build a database to help study misinformation and false propaganda during elections for a research project commissioned and supported by WhatsApp.
“The goal of this project is to study the misinformation phenomenon at scale. As more data flows in, we will be able to identify the most susceptible or affected issues, locations, languages, regions, and more,” said Proto’s co-founders Ritvvij Parrikh and Nasr ul Hadi in a statement to Reuters.
WhatsApp also told Reutars: “The challenge of viral misinformation requires more collaborative efforts and cannot be solved by any one organisation alone.”
Suspicious messages can be shared to the WhatsApp tipline in four regional languages. The fact-checking service will also cover videos and pictures along with text. The submitter is also to confirm they want a fact-check and, on doing so, will get a subsequent response indicating if the shared message is classified as true, false, misleading, disputed or out of scope.
WhatsApp has faced major issues with fakes being spread on its end-to-end encrypted platform — a robust security technology that makes the presence of bogus and/or maliciously misleading content harder to spot and harder to manage since the platform itself does not have access to it.
The spread of fakes has become a huge problem for social media platforms generally. One that’s arguably most acute in markets where literacy (and digital literacy) rates can vary substantially. And in India WhatsApp fakes have led to some truly tragic outcomes — with multiple reports in recent years detailing how fast-spreading digital rumors sparked or fueled mob violence that’s led to death and injury.
India’s general election, which is due to take place in several phases starting later this month until mid May, presents a more clearly defined threat — with the risk of a democratic process and outcome being manipulated by weaponized political disinformation.
WhatsApp’s platform is squarely in the frame given the app’s popularity in India.
WhatsApp has been accused of augmenting political fakes during elections in Brazil last year.
It’s clear that WhatsApp offers a conduit for spreading unregulated and unaccountable propaganda at scale with even limited resources. So whether a tipline can offer a robust check against weaponized political disinformation very much remains to be seen.