Whatsapp And Fake News
I get most of my fake news through Whatsapp. Actually, given my family, it’s mostly dubious medical advice.
Here are a few examples:
Ear Torture Stops A Stroke
If the victim’s mouth is crooked, then pull on his ears until they are red. Then prick each ear lobe twice until two drops of blood comes from each ear lobe. After a few minutes the victim should regain consciousness.
Uhhh… no. Honestly, just let me die. This is only part of the prescription, which also involves pricking each finger to draw blood. The advice also tells you not to take the victim to hospital immediately, as this may cause ‘all the capillaries in his brain to burst’.
Warm Water Cures Cancer
Get up early in the morning and drink approximately 4 glasses of warm water when the stomach is empty. You may not be able to make 4 glasses at the beginning but slowly you will.
The warm water therapy will resolve the health problems within reasonable period such as:-
✔ Diabetes in 30 days
✔ Blood pressure in 30 days
✔ Stomach problems in 10 days
✔ All types of Cancer in 9 months
I suppose it’s not bad to drink water in the morning, but the idea that this is a cure for cancer or literally whatever ails you can prevent people from actually taking care of their health.
I know these examples because they’re from my family and friends, but we have no way of knowing how much is circulating in total. I get medical advice and some warnings about shortages that never happen. Maybe you get fake political news and alien sightings. Who knows.
Messaging networks are private, so it’s nearly impossible to get information about the disinformation. You have to be forwarded the message yourself.
You could say this sort of misinformation is harmless email forwards, but it can spread at scale and, as in India, get people killed.
In May this year, a mob in the eastern state of Jharkhand went on a killing spree, triggered by a simple WhatsApp message.
Three innocent men were beaten to death by an angry mob that wrongly believed those men were human traffickers, based on a warning they received in the messages. (Al Jazeera)
And of course it’s not just India. This sort of disinformation is circulating all over the world, affecting elections, causing panics about non-existent disasters, and of course endangering the earlobes and dignity of stroke victims.
Whatsapp and Messenger are private messaging networks with 1.2 billion users each. They’re huge. If Facebook and Twitter are the tip of the fake news iceberg, messaging is the actual iceberg.
What To Do
Whatsapp recognizes the problem (even if it can’t really quantify it) and they are reportedly testing a feature that will tell you if something you’re sending has been forwarded many times.
Of course, this still can’t differentiate a real tsunami warning from a fake one, but I suppose it’s a start.
The Nature Of The Network
The trouble is that it may not be possible for Whatsapp to solve this problem without not being Whatsapp. This anarchy is a feature, not a bug.
Whatsapp is end-to-end encrypted and no one else can read your messages — even Whatsapp, or its parent company Facebook.
This is great for privacy, but groups and forwarding means that messages can spread as virally as any social network but with even less accountability.
The nature of the network is to spread information quickly, and human nature is to forward dumb shit. Fake news may just be an inherent glitch in the matrix.
There is of course an alternative — China’s government friendly WeChat. In many ways China is ahead of the curve here, with its great firewall that can track and censor what people are saying. They use it for party-preservation and repression, but it seems like the sort of tool Whatsapp would need to actually stomp out fake news and dubiousness.
Of course, Whatapp can’t do that without not being Whatsapp. And the bigger question is, what would we even be building? AI that can tell truth from lies, fact from fiction, and then enforce these rules on humans? That honestly sounds like God, which is bit more than I want from a messaging app.
The Real Scale Of The Fake News Problem
The conversation about fake news has been mostly about Facebook and Twitter, but the reality is actually much bigger than that.
Facebook deserves some credit for trying to address the problem on their namesake platform, but they perhaps need to pay some attention to Messenger, and their acquisition Whatsapp.
There is likely more madness there, and it is far more opaque and baked-in than on Facebook. You can’t even see it, or measure it, but it is impacting societies all the same.
Basically I don’t envy Mark Zuckerberg this year. He wanted to connect everyone and he did. The only problem is that everyone is a bit mad, and now it’s his responsibility.