WhatsApp attempts to check spread of misinformation


WhatsApp today said it would be instituting awards for research on the spread of misinformation on its platform, as the popular messaging app looks to address concerns over the circulation of fake messages and videos.

"WhatsApp cares deeply about the safety of our users. Through this new project, we look forward to working with leading academic experts in India to learn more about how online platforms are used to spread misinformation," a WhatsApp spokesperson told PTI. The spokesperson said this local research would help the company build upon recent changes it has made within WhatsApp and support broad education to help people spot false news and hoaxes.

In a blog post, the company said WhatsApp Research Awards would provide funding for independent research proposals that are designed to be shared with WhatsApp, Facebook, and wider scholarly and policy communities. These "unrestricted monetary awards" would offer investigators the freedom to deepen and extend their existing research portfolio, it added.

Recently, there has been a spate of lynching cases across various states in India that was purportedly triggered by WhatsApp messages.

The government today sent out a stern warning to the Facebook-owned platform to take urgent steps to prevent the spread of "irresponsible and explosive messages" and said it cannot evade its accountability on the issue. India is the largest base for WhatsApp that has over 1.5 billion users globally. It has over 200 million users in India.

With respect to research on 'spread of misinformation', WhatsApp said one of the focus areas would be election-related information. This assumes significance as general elections are slated to be held next year in India and there are concerns that misinformation and hate speech could be circulated for political gains.

The company said it welcomes proposals that "examine how political actors are leveraging WhatsApp to organise and potentially influence elections in their constituencies. WhatsApp is a powerful medium for political actors to connect and communicate with their constituents. However, it can also be misused to share inaccurate or inflammatory political content," it said.

Further, the company said it is interested in understanding this space, both from the perspective of political actors and the voter base.

Another priority area for WhatsApp would be interested in detection of problematic behaviour within its encrypted systems. While WhatsApp's end-to-end encrypted system facilitates privacy and security for all its users, the same could also be misused by those indulging in illegal activities.

"How might we detect illegal activity without monitoring the content of all our users? We are particularly interested in understanding and deterring activities that facilitate the distribution of verifiably false information," the company said. WhatsApp has been taking a number of steps to address the issue of misinformation, including marking forwarded messages.

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