In this photo illustration, the WhatsApp application is displayed on a iPhone on April 6, 2016 in San Anselmo, California.
Photo: Getty

WhatsApp is promising to introduce new features intended to prevent the spread of hoax messages in India following reports that more than one dozen lynchings have occurred in the country as a result of false rumors spread on the popular, Facebook-owned messaging service.

According to BuzzFeed, WhatsApp sent a letter to India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology to address the issue after the government agency called on the company to take accountability for the killings. The company called for a unified approach to address the problem, with “government, civil society and technology companies working together.”

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Over the course of the last six weeks, there have been a number of killings in India linked to false information spread across social media. Per the Washington Post, the messages often accuse people of being human traffickers or organ harvesters.

Villagers in rural parts of the country—some of whom are interacting with smartphones for the first time—receive hoax warnings about such people through WhatsApp and resort to vigilantism, lynching or beating the falsely accused to death. In the latest incident, which took place last week, a mob killed five innocent people after they were accused of trafficking children, according to the Post.

The issue has grown prominent enough in India that the government has called on WhatsApp to address it. In a statement published Tuesday, India’s technology ministry said WhatsApp “cannot evade accountability and responsibility” for the spread of false information, and called on the company to “take immediate action to end this menace”:

Instances of lynching of innocent people have been noticed recently because of large number of irresponsible and explosive messages filled with rumours and provocation are being circulated on WhatsApp.

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Deep disapproval of such developments has been conveyed to the senior management of the WhatsApp and they have been advised that necessary remedial measures should be taken to prevent proliferation of these fake and at times motivated/sensational messages. The Government has also directed that spread of such messages should be immediately contained through the application of appropriate technology.

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WhatsApp, in response, acknowledged the killings—the company said it was “horrified by these acts of violence,” per BuzzFeed—and outlined some of the steps it has taken and intends to take to help curb the spread of misinformation on its platform.

WhatsApp said it has given group administrators the ability to decide who gets to send messages within a group and has made it easier for users to distinguish when a message has been forwarded, as the false messages are often spread that way. The company also announced a new initiative that will provide up to $50,000 to independent researchers studying how misinformation and propaganda spread across social media platforms.

As far as any sort of automated system that can weed out the hoax messages, which seems to be what India’s government was calling for, WhatsApp kicked the can on such efforts. Instead, the company said that dealing with the messages would require a unified effort for all parties involved rather just a technological solution.

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“We believe that false news, misinformation and the spread of hoaxes are issues best tackled collectively: by government, civil society and technology companies working together,” WhatsApp said in the letter, according to BuzzFeed.

WhatsApp hit 1.5 billion monthly active users earlier this year, but India is the company’s largest market. There are more than 200 million active users of the Facebook-owned messaging service in the country—a fact that is likely to keep the company engaged in addressing the spread of misinformation on its platform.

[CNN, BuzzFeed, Washington Post]

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