[op-ed snap] Why rumours love WhatsApp

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Mains Paper 3: Internal Security | Challenges to internal security through communication networks, role of media & social networking sites in internal security challenges

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Particulars of messaging technology, Metadata, Verificado

Mains level: The long-standing debate of Social Media being a boon or a bane


Context

Mob lynchings & role of social media

  1. It was social media that spread most of the rumours leading to a recent spate of lynchings in various parts of the country
  2. All social media platforms struggle with rumours and misinformation. These are spread through posts as well as direct messages
  3. Of all social media platforms, WhatsApp is proving the most challenging for investigators trying to track the source of such rumours and formulate a response

Why are messages difficult to track?

  1. Messaging services by nature do not leave a trail for specific messages
  2. It is very difficult to track where a message originated if has been forwarded many times
  3. With most of these services, the information is with the parent server and police can request the company for access to information, such as IP address, for investigation
  4. With WhatsApp, it is more complex. Everything on the platform is encrypted end-to-end at the device level — all data is stored on the device and not on servers
  5. WhatsApp does not know what is being discussed

Use of metadata

  1. Metadata is defined as data about other data and includes information such as username, device info and log-in time
  2. Each file has a certain amount of metadata, which is embedded when the file is created
  3. WhatsApp removes this, too, when it compresses a video or photo. This is called stripping
  4. Due to the stripping of metadata, it is next to impossible to identify the source on WhatsApp

What is Whatsapp’s approach to stopping this menace?

  1. WhatsApp is working on a mix of in-platform fixes and off-platform intervention
  2. Within the platform it is offering more control for group administrators, flagging forwarded content and offering resources like fact-checking websites for verifying the content
  3. Off-platform, it is expected to initiate measures to educate people about the perils of misinformation and ways to identify them
  4. A new app update allows administrators to choose a setting that only gives the administrators permission to publish in a specific group

International response

  1. WhatsApp was disrupted in 12 of 65 countries — Turkey, Zimbabwe, Azerbaijan, Qatar, UAE, Bangladesh, China, Morroco, Egypt, China, Saudi Arabia — in 2016 and 2017
  2. Uganda has introduced a social media tax to check online gossip, among other objectives, and recently it made social media inaccessible to those who have not paid the tax
  3. In Mexico, private groups collaborated to set up Verificado 2018, a fact-checking initiative, that tries to intervene in the spread of fake news on WhatsApp, particularly during the recent elections
Social Media: Prospect and Challenges
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