Forget Facebook and Twitter: How about Fake News on WhatsApp

While Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a post highlighted the dangers of fake news, there is a problem in tracing fake news through WhatsApp because of its reach in India

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Forget Facebook and Twitter: How about Fake News on WhatsApp

Last Sunday, my mother received a WhatsApp forward of a picture of a Milky Bar chocolate wrapper. The ingredients said that it contained pork gelatin. We cross-checked the ingredients with a Milky Bar at the local grocery store and found that it contained vegetable oils. My colleagues and I did a reverse image search on Google and sourced the image to an Islamic Forum in the United Kingdom in 2012.

(Left) The image from the forum in UK and (right) the manufactured Milky Bar in India


Last month, a forward was doing the rounds on how the Shivaji memorial was a masterstroke by the BJP government because “The statue is made of Amorphous Silicon, Cadmium Telluride & Copper Indium Gallium Selenide. This is exactly the same material used to make solar cells. Our government consulted with Dr. Immonen Kirsi, Senior Solar Scientist at VTT Research, Finland to develop technology to mould these materials into a statue form. This research took 2.5 years & on December 3rd, Dr Kirsi sent an email to Modi Sir that it is now ready for mainstream use. The statue has capability to generate enough electricity to power all government offices in Mumbai.

“The statue also has Radial Uniform Projection And Ranging(RUPAR) technology to track boats in the Arabian Sea to prevent a repeat of the 2008 Mumbai attack where the terrorists entered India through the sea. RUPAR is the next generation of SONAR technology and has been developed at the Indian Institute of Science.”

DNA traced the article to Reddit and found that it was a satire post that had been edited and converted to a WhatsApp forward that had been circulated across the country. India is one of WhatsApp's biggest markets, and its quick adoption can be linked to the rapid penetration of the internet into rural India. 

In November 2016, WhatsApp announced that its instant messaging and voice calling service is being used by 160 million active users every month in India, its biggest market. In contrast, Facebook had 155 million monthly active users in India during the same period.

In 2016, a report by Boston Consultancy Group (BCG), an international management and business consultancy, spoke of the digital penetration in rural India. The report said that by 2020, rural consumers will constitute half of India's internet users.

Source: Rajya Sabha

Internet penetration and usage in rural India vary by geography. Two southern states, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and four northern states—Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, and Jammu & Kashmir—have the highest penetration. Kerala at 37 per cent, Himachal Pradesh at 28 per cent, and Punjab at 27 per cent top the chart. Many eastern states, such as Bihar (9 per cent), Odisha (10 per cent), West Bengal (11 per cent), and Assam (12 per cent), are at the lower end of the spectrum, the report says.

In addition, the report says that people in rural India use Whatsapp, which was probably one of the first phone applications they tried.

A joint report by Indian Market Research Bureau and Internet and industry body Mobile Association of India, which was published a year earlier, adds that  84 per cent of the internet users in 35 cities in India, including four metros New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata, use internet primarily to access social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. This figure stands at 85 per cent for rural India.

According to a research paper titled 'Harassment via WhatsApp in Urban and Rural India: A Baseline Survey Report, the popularity of WhatsApp among Indian users has inspired many government agencies including the police to use it for connecting to the public. Currently, the Delhi police has a WhatsApp helpline (9910641064) whereby residents can send audio-visual and still images to the police for complaining any issues related to traffic violations, misbehaviour of public transport drivers and conductors etc.

Of course, harassment on WhatsApp and other social media isn't confined to public transport drivers and conductors. Political parties have quickly adopted the tools to spread their messages and target their rivals.

In her book titled, I Am A Troll, journalist Swati Chaturvedi explored the relationship between abusive social media accounts in India and the BJP. According to the book, Chaturvedi, who interviewed over 30 members from the BJP’s social media cell, said that party volunteers work full-time to bombard Twitter with hashtags to make them trend, send sexual abuse threats at prominent Indian liberals and journalists, and seed WhatsApp – the Facebook-owned instant messenger used by over 160 million Indians – with hate speeches and propaganda, which at times have been accused of being fake news.


However, the BJP in its social media document says that while office bearers are encouraged to put out the party line while fully appreciating the fact that some of them will be giving out personal opinions and/or engaging with other social media users on relevant social issues. “Office Bearers are expected to be "model" social media citizens so that their passionate followers are influenced by example on appropriate Social Media conduct,” the document adds.

Speaking to DNA, Amit Malviya, the National Head - Informational Technology and Digital Communication for the BJP said that the internet is massive. “Because of its enormity, there are supporters, who irrespective of the party they support put out information, which can be misleading. This matter is constantly circulated and its spread cannot be controlled,” he said.

While party supporters continue sending out propaganda, the same can be said about the Congress. In November 2016, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes would be discontinued, a lot of news about people standing outside ATM lines were doing the rounds. In the madness, Congress spokesperson Sanjay Jha shared an image – which he probably got on WhatsApp – on his Twitter timeline of what he perceived to be a long ATM queue. The image, in fact, was of an election line in Kenya. Jha took down the tweet immediately, but the damage had been done.

“The Congress is a volunteer-based network and our members usually share fact-checked information. There have, however, been times when this information has been incorrect. Sometimes, some officials do end up sharing forwards from genuine volunteers but it could be attributed to not vetting the info received. It definitely isn’t part of strategy to spread falsehoods," said Congress spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvei while speaking to DNA.

Chaturvedi added that the forwards are usually resent on basis of trust. "Many accuse the Congress for 'not being aggressive on digital media but we'd rather focus on sharing genuine fact based information over instant popularity through deliberate misinformation and lies to the people on these mediums," she said.

More recently, people, allegedly Aam Aadmi Party supporters, shared fudged information on the Punjab polls and attributed it to Today's Chanakya, a polling agency. The agency, however, denied that they had shared any information with political parties on Wednesday. "In this case, AAP is guilty of fudging information, and it is this type of propaganda that can mislead the Indian voter," Chaturvedi said.

While WhatApp refused to comment about the story, they did share a safety page where an individual can choose to share his/her details.

A spokesperson for Facebook, which bought WhatsApp in 2014, however, said, “We take misinformation seriously. Our goal is to connect people with the stories they find most meaningful, and we know people want accurate information. We've been working on this problem for a long time and we take this responsibility seriously. We've made significant progress, but there is more work to be done.”

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had even put up a post in November 2016 where he addressed the dangers of fake news.

The fundamental thing lacking in individuals sending out such WhatsApp forwards is common sense, feels Mumbai resident Pankaj Jain. Jain was on the receiving end of several WhatsApp forwards, including one sent by a relative warning him not to drink Mango Frooti, a locally produced drink, because it contained the blood of HIV patients. "I would initially call out these hoax messages, but eventually realised that I needed everyone to know about the problems with fake news," said Jain while speaking to DNA. 

The Mumbai resident then started SM Hoax Slayer, a page on Facebook that tracks fake news that is circulated on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp and explains why these are fake images. "Reverse imaging Google always shows the source of a picture and that usally helps us find that many of the news stories circulated on WhatsApp are fake. I've received pictures of riots in Bangladesh, but saying that it's Bengal. Party supporters this way are instrumental in spreading turmoil using WhatsApp as a tool," he added.

A BJP party member on condition of anonymity added that party members, irrespective of the party they support, send material even if they know it’s fake. “They may think someone else may think it’s true and for that, they can be vindictive,” he said.

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