No free lynch on WhatsApp for embattled Zuckerberg
Fake news on the platform is killing people in India
For Mark Zuckerberg 2018 has already been an annus horribilis. Facebook’s 34-year-old founder and chief executive has faced mounting public pressure amid the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which saw trust in the social network plummet.
Last week he faced pressure to abandon his dual role as chairperson and chief executive after over $120-billion was wiped from the value of the group in the single biggest one-day loss of value for any company in US market history when Facebook unveiled its second-quarter results.
Zuckerberg has never been a natural public speaker, but the strain may be starting to show.In an embarrassing gaffe earlier this month, he was quoted defending people who have used Facebook to deny the existence of the Holocaust, telling US technology website Recode: “At the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down.” He later clarified his comments in an e-mail to Recode, but it was a telling slip. Now Zuckerberg faces another crisis. This time, it has nothing to do with Facebook’s core social networking business, but WhatsApp, the free messaging service that it acquired for $19-billion in 2014.
In India, WhatsApp has become wildly popular among vast numbers of people who use it to communicate with friends and family. But the app has also increasingly been used to spread fake news and videos suggesting that thousands of child kidnappers are moving around the country. Rumours have spread rapidly through WhatsApp groups, and the messages have fueled a series of lynchings of innocent people.More than 20 people have now been killed because of misinformation spread through the service. Victims include Abijeet Nath and Nilotpal Das, who were beaten to death after stopping to ask for directions. Local residents of Assam state, having seen messages on WhatsApp which claimed kidnappers were operating in the area, murdered the two men.
To understand how these lynchings happened, it helps to understand the way in which WhatsApp is used in India. It’s not merely a messaging app, but serves as a gateway to payment services and news. That means that when people see videos or messages in a WhatsApp group which suggest that child kidnappers are operating in the area, they trust the service and believe the message.Misinformation on WhatsApp isn’t a new phenomenon, but what is new is the scale of the violence in the recent wave of attacks in India.
It’s obvious that WhatsApp and Facebook have a problem. The messaging app is being used to fuel fraud, violence and murder with the Indian incidents being described as “WhatsApp lynchings” in the press.
Zuckerberg's problem is how to deal with it. WhatsApp is, by nature, very difficult for Facebook to control. Messages are sent with end-to-end encryption, meaning that administrators can’t simply log into a server and read them.
It would be an easy problem for Facebook to fix if the misinformation was being circulated through Facebook, not WhatsApp. It could remove the posts and delete any pages that had shared them.
But Facebook can’t do that with WhatsApp, even if they are sent in group messages to hundreds of people.
“It is practically impossible for WhatsApp to regulate content in the peer-to-peer encrypted environment it is set up in,” Indian lawyer Rahul Matthan told The Economic Times.
To add to the problem, WhatsApp’s founders have resisted attempts from Facebook to harvest data from the app.
When WhatsApp chief executive Jan Koum made a deal with Zuckerberg in 2014 to sell his company, he made sure that WhatsApp’s independence was guaranteed. Koum even managed to get himself a seat on Facebook’s board.Over several late-night dinners at Zuckerberg's house in Palo Alto, California, the two men drafted a plan which would see WhatsApp remain independent as part of Facebook, keeping messages private.
But Koum abruptly left Facebook in April, and it was reported that an attempt by Facebook to weaken the messaging app’s encryption was one reason for his departure.
Koum announced his decision to leave Facebook in a post on, where else, Facebook: “It is time for me to move on,” he wrote. He would now devote his time to “collecting rare air-cooled Porsches, working on my cars and playing ultimate frisbee”, he added.WhatsApp’s other founder, Brian Acton, had already left the business earlier this year. He’s certainly no fan of the company any more, having publicly urged his followers on rival social network Twitter to delete their Facebook accounts in March.
The departure of the two men now gives Facebook more control over WhatsApp, and the company has made a series of small changes which it hopes will help to fix the problem in India.
It has limited the number of messages that users can forward, which previously allowed single messages to spread through multiple groups very quickly. Now, people can’t freely spread the same message repeatedly, and the app shows whether a message has been forwarded.
Facebook has also flown senior WhatsApp executives to India to meet with the local government, banks and political parties about the issue. Facebook can’t break WhatsApp’s encryption to remove the messages, but it can help to educate people about the danger of misleading messages.
There’s no simple fix for the problem, and it has largely been left to local police forces in India to attempt to educate people on the dangers of misinformation on WhatsApp. Some local police forces have even taken to driving around villages, using a loudspeaker system to tell people to be sceptical of any news they read on WhatsApp.
The WhatsApp lynchings in India are a long way from Zuckerberg in California, but they risk bringing Facebook back into the spotlight over how it deals with misleading information. Zuckerberg managed to send an e-mail to clarify his misguided comments about Holocaust denial, but the situation in India requires far more work.
- © The Daily Telegraph