online content restrictions

WhatsApp and similar closed-messaging platforms are becoming a prime vector for fake news, with sometimes fatal consequences. In large emerging markets, doctored videos shared on WhatsApp have been used to encourage violent racism and homophobia.

According to recent reports, eight people in India are thought to have been lynched in the past two months as a result of the circulation of photos of dead children and a video purportedly showing a child abduction. In fact, the video was edited taken from a Pakistani child safety video.

This comes as closed messaging systems are increasingly relied on as a source of news in some parts of the world. The nature of WhatsApp groups means the fake news comes from someone you know or have a connection to and, as a result, are likely to trust.

India’s ruling Hindu-fundamentalist party, the BJP, are taking advantage of the country’s embrace of the messaging app — over 200 million Indians are estimated to be using the platform. This month the party announced it was building a “cyber sena” or army of 200,000 trained social media workers to push the party’s message through WhatsApp groups in the electorally crucial northern state of Uttar Pradesh. BJP activists will join regular chat groups and post political “news”, encouraging others to spread the material from group to group.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial and get Crikey straight to your inbox

By submitting this form you are agreeing to Crikey's Terms and Conditions.

The program has already been accused of spreading fake news and manipulating information. Examples include a rumour being spread that the West Bengal government was pandering to minorities by announcing a five day holiday for Eid, or spreading fabricated quotes by prominent people lauding Prime Minister Modi. 

Facebook shares and likes are more or less public and are monitored by the Facebook algorithm. What happens on WhatsApp, on the other hand, stays on WhatsApp.

Media organisations in India and around the world are playing with WhatsApp as a distribution tool. In Australia, the ABC launched a WhatsApp service earlier this year and, in the US, Bloomberg has been promoting its forthcoming daily WhatsApp news.

It’s hard to know whether retro-fitting mass distribution into a messaging platform can succeed. But as closed messaging systems become more significant on the social web, media organisations can’t ignore them.

According to the Reuters Institute’s 2018 Digital News Report, released this month, a survey of 74,000 people in 37 countries showed that about one in six people accessed news through WhatsApp and a further 8% had relied on news shared through Facebook’s Messenger.

The survey concludes that the shift to messaging systems like WhatsApp is driven by loss of confidence in Facebook as a result of the fake news brouhaha in the 2016 US election. It shows that even before the company’s algorithm tweaks in January this year, the proportion of people relying on Facebook for news had dropped from 42% to 36%.

The traditional media faces a challenge: report and spread the news further? Or ignore? Yet the WhatsApp experience is demonstrating yet again that “fake news” scales much more effectively than the truth can hope to. There are a lot more people active in the BJP cyber army than there are journalists challenging the stories.

In Australia, both media and politicians assume that fake news doesn’t happen here, although this ignores its role on issues like climate change denial or Melbourne’s “African gang crisis”. And just like in India, no-one knows just what stories are being shared from WhatsApp group to WhatsApp group.