Read, believed and forwarded - the WhatsApp dilemma

Sven Krumrey

In the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, two men are nearly beaten to death by an angry mob, in Brazil, made-up news are used to massively influence voters and German kids are living in fear of a monster - all because of WhatsApp. What sounds like a mediocre science fiction novel has now become a reality. The popular messenger is no longer just a messenger but a news platform that spreads fear, prejudice and hatred to millions, leaving its owners wondering how put the genie back in the bottle.

Most trust-worthy news source for many: WhatsApp

We generally tend to give friends and family the benefit of the doubt when it comes to news and, because of our relationship, said news can have a significant emotional impact, unlike some anonymous internet articles. Yet, we seldom know the original source behind the story. Depending on where you live, this can cause all kinds of trouble, sometimes with dangerous outcomes. Recently, India became a focal point of interest when, especially in its rural areas, hysteria was stoked through WhatsApp. The story was that men disguised as beggars would kill people and sell their organs. It spread like wildfire and, almost as quickly, two suspects were found and almost lynched by a mob of 500. A few weeks prior, a man thought to be a child kidnapper was beaten to death. So far, dozens of people have been injured in similar cases in 2018, none of them guilty of any crimes.

In Germany, a gruesome chain email made the news and scared hundreds of thousands of kids. It's creator, who called himself "Momo", used an image of a Japanese ghost and claimed he had died three years ago in a car accident. He'd go on to say that, unless the message was forwarded to 15 contacts, he'd haunt or even kill the reader at midnight. What may sound ridiculous to us had a devastating effect on the children. These threatening chain emails are often disseminated through various Japanese, Mexican or Columbian WhatsApp accounts until mass distribution is achieved through their underage readers. Another story had kids do various tasks to keep "Momo" away. One of them led to 14-year old Kendal Gattino committing suicide by strangling himself with his Taekwondo belt. While police and authorities along with parent and teacher unions are desperately struggling to raise awareness, experience shows it'll take some time for "Momo" to finally fall into oblivion.

Rumors spread like wildfire Rumors spread like wildfire

Brazil recently not only had to cope with an election but also with a wave of fake news distributed through over 100,000 WhatsApp accounts. The move was in part coordinated by PR agencies and, by means of nasty propaganda, sought to disparage political rivals. Eventually, the election commission was forced to silence a number of spin doctors as their bias towards the later election winner had become all too apparent. Since WhatsApp is the number one news source for many Brazilians, observers consider the affair a case of massive voter manipulation. Fittingly, a recent MIT study found fake news are deliberately charged with emotion and, consequently, rated more interesting by readers than ordinary news pieces. Furthermore, fake stories cater to and substantiate popular beliefs and prejudice resulting in a 70% higher chance of redistribution. Or as one of my friends (admin of a sizable Facebook group) put it: "An ill-conceived child abduction story travels faster than a genuine cry for help."

Naturally, WhatsApp know about the fatal consequences but are rather powerless. Messages are encrypted so content filters are unable to identify and weed out fakes. The company simply doesn't know what is going on communication-wise. That's why WhatsApp vowed to better educate their users and enable them to report fake messages. Also, forwarded messages will be visually distinguishable from normal messages in the future. Another option might be to greatly limit message forwarding, disable group messaging or restrict the number of participants. Just like Facebook, who are facing allegations of having done nothing to prevent genocide in Myanmar (stoked and directed through their portal), WhatsApp is not entirely blameless here.

Keep calm: Not every news piece reflects the truth Keep calm: Not every news piece reflects the truth

Time will tell whether these measures will be enough once panic flares up again. Indian authorities have already called for a more drastic approach, planning to force companies like Facebook to store, and, if needed, hand over all data from Indian users. Naturally, privacy groups are up in arms fearing the end of encryption and freedom of opinion. Sure, surveillance always has potential for abuse, but so does the free distribution of content - it's a dilemma! More progressive voices have been calling for more media literacy classes in schools for years to teach children how to tell real and fake messages apart whether they're coming from strangers or friends. I believe that to be a prudent course of action as technology alone won't solve this dilemma, we need better education and common sense.

What I would like to know: Do you generally trust messages from friends and family more or do you objectively question everything no matter who the source is?

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