Question of abuse

The government wants WhatsApp to tighten its checks on fake news spread via messages exchanged by users. The social media messaging company, though, has expressed reservations about doing so, citing that it has encrypted messages end-to-end. However, media reports suggest that WhatsApp can still manage to keep track of messages even with whatever little data it retains on its servers from messages of users. Data that WhatsApp stores on its servers can be used, if not to access the entire message or such information that identifies the sender or recipient, at least to get some idea of the kind of content that is being circulated on the platform. The process of identifying potentially hazardous messages, though, cannot be automated. That will require assessment of content by humans so that it can be said whether a message is incendiary or not. One suggestion to counter the menace of fake news being spread over platforms such as WhatsApp is that there should be a robust abuse reporting mechanism controlled by users. The trouble with the suggestion, though, is that even reporting of fake news can lead to abuse in due course. Given the kind of rampant violation of law nationwide, there is no guarantee that an abuse reporting mechanism would work the way it should in the Indian milieu. Apart from this, the very words ‘fake news’ have no clear indicators of their nature or origin. Lest it be sidelined, it must remembered that the ruling BJP had used these very social media platforms to spread very many messages amongst which many could be labelled as being fake in hindsight. With the wide diversity of people and cultures, almost anything can be perceived as a hazardous message by one individual or the other. Who takes umbrage at what is unpredictable. The implementation of an abuse reporting mechanism on WhatsApp is bound to be tested by people making false reports.

One primary example of a positive measure being scuttled by misuse is the implementation of the Right to Information Act. The Act was hailed as a watershed moment in the empowerment of people. But since the introduction of the Act, its misuse has driven many a government office to spend its precious resources on futile communication. Although RTI can never be considered irrelevant, yet the emergence of groups of people under the banner of RTI Activists proves that a whole bunch of them are collecting valuable state information/data that are possibly used for achieving dubious targets. Such acts have helped an ill intentioned government which has now conveniently started working towards weakening the Central Information Commission by starving it of necessary strength of officials. It will only be a matter of time before key provisions in the Act are diluted by successive governments. If the government is serious about preventing misuse of WhatsApp to incite violence, it cannot do so through legislation or harsh actions against the company itself. It is the populace or the user of this country that is probably getting disenchanted with the government of the day and has resorted to use such platforms to vent displeasures. WhatsApp by itself may be a brilliant tool in the hands of people doing positive work. It will be a huge blow to them if they are required to suffer for the fault of those who abuse the facility. If WhatsApp does introduce a means to get users to report abuse, it will have to first ensure that the user reporting abuse is himself or herself genuine. Unless individuals are not allowed to cultivate positive approach to such social media platforms, the possibilities of abuse cannot be written off. One thing that must also be looked into is the source of the messages said to have caused mob lynchings. The misuse of the platform to weaken its popularity cannot also be ruled out. The focus of reforms on social media has to be on its users rather than solely on its creators. In the case of incendiary messages, only collective intelligence and action can avert mishaps. The social media company can barely do anything against individuals where the government itself fails to deliver. The best deterrent would be an informed user base that does not blindly believe any propaganda or poisonous intent dished out in the garb of news.

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