Three sadhus rescued from lynching in Assam
Three sadhus rescued from lynching in Assam

Facebook-owned messaging service WhatsApp is in the crosshairs of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology as rumours spread on the platform led to mob killings across the country. Following a spike in lynchings triggered by fake videos on the messaging platform, the ministry has asked WhatsApp to address the issue.

Over the course of the last eight weeks or so, there has been a spate of killings in India linked to false information spread across various social media platforms. The messages often accuse people of being human traffickers or organ thieves or simply, carrying beef.

WhatsApp "cannot evade accountability and responsibility" for the spread of false information, the technology ministry said, adding that the messaging service should "take immediate action to end this menace."

I watched this with growing disbelief. Why blame the platform for the content posted on it? Given that there is end-to-end encryption and that a large proportion of the traffic is person-to-person, it is impossible to intercept and pre-censor the content on the platform.

Besides, there are ethical issues around privacy and censorship of any kind. Fake news and deaths caused by it have far more to do with the lack of legal recourse and the deterioration of law-and-order situations than with technology.

It is commendable that WA is trying to take steps to address the issue in ways it can, but the civil society and the governments must work together with tech companies to educate people and punish deliberate attempts to incite violence.

History repeats

This is nothing new per se. It took me back almost eight years when we, as part of a Google team, were having the exact same conversation with the then Union government over the content on YouTube and the demand to pre-censor content. When we pointed out that it was not really feasible, given the gargantuan volume of content. As much as 60 hours of content is uploaded on YT every minute, we said. The minister concerned actually told us that since we were the tech experts, it was our job to figure out a solution.

The government, in this case, has also directed that the spread of such messages should be immediately contained through the application of appropriate technology. Clearly, the label of the lawmakers may change, but the attitude doesn't.

WhatsApp, in response, acknowledged the killings — the company said it was "horrified by these acts of violence -- and has given group administrators the ability to decide who gets to send messages within a group and has made it easier for users to distinguish when a message has been forwarded, as the false messages are often spread that way. The company also announced a new initiative that will provide up to $50,000 to independent researchers studying how misinformation and propaganda spread across social media platforms.

In many ways, it is a non-issue. Section 79 of the Indian IT Act itself absolves the intermediaries of content posted by third parties or messages sent by users. The platforms can claim full immunity under the provision. Of course, there's a clamor for India-specific laws, citing territoriality to make technology companies culpable. But that is a solution global companies are unlikely to accept, as it's really difficult for them to tailor user guidelines for different geographies.

Privacy concerns are also paramount with global players like WhatsApp. The anonymity provided by the level of encryption makes it nearly impossible to track users, including those spreading hate messages. WhatsApp could provide access to the content only if it is served with a legal notice or under Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) that can be sent to the US to access metadata. But it will not allow the governments or law enforcement agencies to tap into servers at will. This has also led to fresh demands for data localization, with data residing in India-based servers, another very tricky terrain from a data privacy and security perspective.

Further, lynchings and vigilantism, one could argue, are reflections of a deteriorating law-and-order situation than a technology issue, a fact many have chosen to ignore. On July 3, the Supreme Court ruled that it is the responsibility of the states to maintain law and order in cases of lynching and mob violence. This argument is bolstered by the fact that there is no anti-lynching law till date, though enough demands have been made for it. An apathetic police force with low population coverage adds to the problem rather than resolving it.

Needed, a law against lynch mobs

The solution, if any, will lie in unified action. "We believe that false news, misinformation and the spread of hoaxes are issues best tackled collectively: by the government, civil society, and technology companies working together," said WhatsApp in a statement.

Given the meteoric rise in the number of smartphone user -- the smartphone market is growing at nearly 20 percent annually -- and the tendency of forwarding sensitive but unverified information by a significant proportion of nearly 500 million mobile internet users, it is evident that the impact is tremendous and usually negative. Users could be counseled consistently about not forwarding messages without checking the authenticity of sources. A law against lynch mobs would help. As would bolstering law enforcement agencies.

But to make a platform responsible for content posted on it and trying to portray a tool or convenience as a weapon of mass destruction, just shows how uninformed and opinionated we still are.

{Paroma Roy Choudhury is a public affairs professional based out of New Delhi. The opinion(s) are the author's own}.