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Home >Opinion >Hate crimes, fake news: WhatsApp is guilty, so are we

A spate of ugly rumours that spread rapidly leading to the brutal killing of over 20 human beings in various parts of India has turned the lens squarely on WhatsApp, the messaging platform used quite wilfully and cynically for the purpose.

The Indian government did what governments across the world have done in such situations—blame the medium while ignoring the message. It promptly asked the company to take steps to stop the spread of such videos.

New media platforms that have become a vehicle for some to disrupt society are increasingly under pressure to reform or be shut down. For WhatsApp though, the scrutiny it is facing in India is quite unusual. A country known for its missed-call culture, embraced the messaging platform for its free and seamless communication service. With little or no effort, it has scaled to nearly 200 million users, a significant part of its 1.5 billion user base globally.

For all that success, other commentators have pointed out how thinly WhatsApp is staffed in India. That’s an unfortunate if all-too-familiar occurrence among new multinationals. Wary of building costs they tend to test the waters by dipping their toes, little realizing that to figure out a market as large, complex and heterogeneous as India you need an all-in approach.

Not having anticipated such rapid growth or indeed the possible uses its platform could be put to, the company has been caught out. Its own encryption system is turning out to be the biggest hurdle to preventing the kind of fake videos and rumors that led to the tragic deaths. As all messages are encrypted, technically, WhatsApp has no control over them and, therefore, no way of filtering them using human editors in the way other content platforms like Facebook and Google are doing.

With general elections less than a year away and the threat of serious miscommunication and consequent censure, the company has put out a series of public interest ads besides announcing a set of awards for researchers who will work on issues that are related to misinformation on its platform. While that is unlikely to solve the problem it does show how it has suddenly woken up to the looming crisis.

And crisis it is, for the rapidity of transmission and the ease of seeding on these platforms make any volatile messages, particularly videos and pictures, lethal in consequence. An academic study titled Fanning the Flames of Hate: Social Media and Hate Crime by Karsten Müller and Carlo Schwarz of the University of Warwick in the UK concluded that there was a direct correlation between social media posts by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and hate crime in Germany.

WhatsApp’s parent company Facebook Inc. is already facing increasing threats of enforced regulation. Following the Cambridge Analytica disclosures, the European Union is looking at replacing the current voluntary code of conduct on the removal of online hate speech with legislation and heavy fines.

That’s as it should be. The medium carrying the message must take responsibility for it. The danger, however, is that in blaming companies for these actions, we tend to absolve society in general and each of us in particular, of any responsibility. Big internet is rapidly joining the ranks of other mega industries like pharma and oil, reviled and feared for their influence.

Last year, after the incident at London Bridge, British Prime Minister Theresa May declared: “We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed. Yet that is precisely what the internet, and the big companies that provide internet-based services, provide."

That sounds both pat and simplistic. Ultimately society is a collection of individuals with a mind and a will. Technologies are neutral vehicles that are used or abused for good or for bad and the companies that own them are neither wholly benevolent nor malevolent. They are in the business of making money using all means within the broadest definitions of legality and ethics.

Blaming WhatsApp may be the easy thing to do. It may also be the right thing to do. But it is unlikely to be the only thing we need to do.

Sundeep Khanna is a consulting editor at Mint and oversees the newsroom’s corporate coverage.The Corporate Outsider will look at current issues and trends in the corporate sector every week.

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