WhatsApp adds a tip-line for checking fakes in India ahead of elections

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Facebook-owned messaging platform WhatsApp has launched a fact-checking tipline for users in India ahead of elections in the country.

The fact-checking service consists of a phone number (+91-9643-000-888) where users can send dubious messages if they think they might not be true or otherwise want them verified.

The messaging giant is working with a local media skilling startup, Proto, to run the fact-checking service — in conjunction with digital strategy consultancy Dig Deeper Media and San Francisco-based Meedan, which builds tools for journalists, to provide the platform for verifying submitted content, per TNW.

We’ve reached out to Proto and WhatsApp with questions.

The Economic Times of India reports that the startup intends to use the submitted messages to build a database to help study misinformation during elections for a research project commissioned and supported by WhatsApp.

“The goal of this project is to study the misinformation phenomenon at scale. As more data flows in, we will be able to identify the most susceptible or affected issues, locations, languages, regions, and more,” said Proto’s co-founders Ritvvij Parrikh and Nasr ul Hadi in a statement quoted by Reuters.

WhatsApp also told the news agency: “The challenge of viral misinformation requires more collaborative efforts and cannot be solved by any one organisation alone.”

According to local press reports, suspicious messages can be shared to the WhatsApp tipline in four regional languages, with the fact-checking service covering videos and pictures, as well as text. The submitter is also to confirm they want a fact-check and, on doing so, will get a subsequent response indicating if the shared message is classified as true, false, misleading, disputed or out of scope.

Other related information may also be provided, the Economic Times reports.

WhatsApp has faced major issues with fakes being spread on its end-to-end encrypted platform — a robust security technology that makes the presence of bogus and/or maliciously misleading content harder to spot and harder to manage since the platform itself does not have access to it.

The spread of fakes has become a huge problem for social media platforms generally. One that’s arguably most acute in markets where literacy (and digital literacy) rates can vary substantially. And in India WhatsApp fakes have led to some truly tragic outcomes — with multiple reports in recent years detailing how fast-spreading digital rumors sparked or fuelled mob violence that’s led to death and injury.

India’s general election, which is due to take place in several phases starting later this month until mid next, presents a more clearly defined threat — with the risk of a democratic process and outcome being manipulated by weaponized political disinformation.

WhatsApp’s platform is squarely in the frame given the app’s popularity in India.

It has also been accused of fuelling damaging political fakes during elections in Brazil last year, with Reuters reporting that the platform was flooded with falsehoods and conspiracy theories.

An outsized presence on social media appears to have aided the election of right winger Jair Bolsonaro. While the leftwing candidate he beat in a presidential runoff later claimed businessmen backing Bolsonaro paid to flood WhatsApp with misleading propaganda.

In India local press reports that politicians across the spectrum are being accused of seeking to manipulate the forthcoming elections by seeding fakes on the popular encrypted messaging platform.

It’s clear that WhatsApp offers a conduit for spreading unregulated and unaccountable propaganda at scale with even limited resources. So whether a tipline can offer a robust check against weaponized political disinformation very much remains to be seen.

There certainly look to be limitations to this approach. Though it could also be developed and enhanced — such as if it gets more fully baked into the platform.

For now it looks like WhatsApp is testing the water and trying to gather more data to shape a more robust response.

The most obvious issue with the tipline is it requires a message recipient to request a check — an active step that means the person must know about the fact-check service, have the number available in their contacts, and trust the judgements of those running it.

Many WhatsApp users will fall outside those opt-in bounds.

It also doesn’t take much effort to imagine purveyors of malicious rumors spreading fresh fakes claiming the fact-checks/checkers are biased or manipulated to try to turn WhatsApp users against it.

This is likely why local grassroots political organizations are also being encouraged to submit any rumors they see circulating across the different regions during the election period. And why WhatsApp is talking about the need for collective action to combat the disinformation problem.

It will certainly need engagement across the political spectrum to counter any bias charges and plug gaps resulting from limited participation by WhatsApp users themselves.

How information on debunked fakes can be credibly and widely fed back to Indian voters in a way that broadly reaches the electorate is what’s really key though.

There’s no suggestion, here and now, that’s going to happen via WhatsApp itself — only those who request a check are set to get a response.

Although that could change in future. But, equally, the company may be wary of being seen to accept a role in  centralized distribution of (even fake) political propaganda. That way more accusations of bias likely lie.

In recent years Facebook has taken out adverts in traditional India media to warn about fakes. It has also experimented with other tactics to try to combat damaging WhatsApp rumors — such as using actors to role-plays fakes in public to warn against false messages.

So the company looks to be hoping to develop a multi-stakeholder, multi-format information network off of its own platform to help get the message out about fakes spreading on WhatsApp.

Albeit, that’s clearly going to take time and effort. It’s also still not clear whether it will be effective vs an app that’s always on hand and capable of feeding in fresh fakes. 

The tipline also, inevitably, looks slow and painstaking beside the wildfire spread of digital fakes. And it’s not clear how much of a check on spread and amplification it can offer in this form. Certainly initially — given the fact-checking process itself necessarily takes time.

While a startup, even one that’s being actively supported by WhatsApp, is unlikely to have the resources to speedily fact-check the volume of fakes that will be distributed across such a large market, fuelled by election interests. Yet timely intervention is critical to prevent fakes going viral.

So, again, this initiative looks unlikely to stop the majority of bogus WhatsApp messages from being swallowed and shared. But the data-set derived from the research project which underpins the tipline may help the company fashion a more responsive and proactive approach to contextualizing and debunking malicious rumors in future.

Proto says it plans to submit its learnings to the International Center for Journalists to help other organizations learn from its efforts.

The Economic Times also quotes Fergus Bell, founder and CEO of Dig Deeper Media, suggesting the research will help create “global benchmarks” for those wishing to tackle misinformation in their own markets.

In the meantime, though, the votes go on.