Afternoon Voice

Government passes the buck on WhatsApp

With over 200 million users in India, WhatsApp is facing a massive fake news and misinformation problem. The platform is rife with all kinds of misinformation be it— political, religious, historical, medical, social or legal. Ergo, the government has expressed its disdain towards the instant messaging service company over “irresponsible and explosive messages”, warning it to end the menace of spreading rumours through messages that have incited several instances of violence in the country in the last few months.

BJP spokesperson Shivray Kulkarni commented, “According to our laws, controlling social media is not in our hand. Social media should be handled carefully. Previously, the print media served protocols to not print unverified content, not reveal the name of the rape victim, or nude photos or violent content. Social media doesn’t function in the similar way as it is a free platform where there is a variety of verified and unverified messages. There is a need to create awareness to follow protocols and cyber laws to use Whatsapp, Facebook, and other social media. According to me, until we educate ourselves to read the authenticity of content on social media as it can be difficult for any administration to have control over the social media.”

As per the reports, incidents of lynching triggered by speculations claimed many lives in the 14 incidents that took place in Maharashtra itself during the last few months. While across India, a string of similar killings in recent months has been carried out and reported from states such as Assam, Karnataka, Tripura, and West Bengal. Approximately over 25 people have been killed from the last year in 10 different Indian states by rumours of child lifting that were spread over WhatsApp. Despite not being the responsibility of the WhatsApp to analyse the accountability to false or fake messages, the government abuses the messaging app for the same. However, can it be considered as an appropriate step by the government to raise question on the security of WhatsApp rather than courageously accepting their failures to implement a stringent law and order for the wrongdoers?

Cyber Law Expert Puneet Bhasin stated, “Whatsapp is not a directive intermediary. But it has to verify the veracity of content although, beyond a certain point, it is difficult for them to keep a check on the authenticity of the messages. So the main focus should be to educate the users and create awareness. It is amusing to see that people nowadays believe whatever they see on Google and YouTube.”

The initial purpose of WhatsApp or any social media platforms is to connect people in and around the world. Although, it has been clearly contemplated in a wrong manner by the government by imposing various restrictions and blocking internet or mobile services in volatile situations to avoid the spread of false information that can stir trouble, will regulating warnings on Whatsapp to curb the rumour-spreading messages help in changing the mindset of the influencers?

Former state DGP Pravin Dixit said, “People should take initiative to create self-awareness and learn to verify the authenticity of the messages. The misuse of the social media is dangerous. People should rethink before forwarding such unverified messages. In the past, we had launched a scheme of Police Mitra App (police friend), where people used to help police to administrate and avoid such incidents. According to cybercrime rules and regulations, there are provision to take action against such anti-social messages or people.”

In a response to the Ministry of Electronics and IT’s (MeitY) statement, Facebook Inc’s WhatsApp messenger has told India that curbing the spread of false messages through its platform is a challenge that requires a partnership between the tech firm, civil society, and the government. It also said that they are making changes to group chats to prevent the outspreading of unwanted information.

NCP Women’s Wing President Chitra Wagh commented, “Initially, the ruling government used to spread the false information to create their vote bank in the election to come into power. Now when incidents like mob lynching are happening and the government is trying to show that they are taking steps for maintaining law and order by sending notice to WhatsApp. Lynching is not just possible through messages; the government is also responsible for it. They cannot shed off their responsibility by blaming WhatsApp. The government is answerable to what kind of action they are taking on such post relating to mob lynching and should clarify on the same.”

Looking at the other side where political parties use the platform to woo the voters, and “IT Cells” are believed to be using the platform for spreading misinformation and hate speeches and soon it gets viral all around the social media by their supporters. The local administration often gets fixed when mobs start gathering and provoke riots. Perhaps, a proper action by the government to persuade the rumour-mongers might do a good turn in fading away of speculations as well as the violence incidents mushrooming in the country.

Twinkle Mehta