WhatsApp is a lifeline for many of India’s 300 million smartphone users. Now the central government has begun demanding more action from WhatsApp to design a digital literacy programme to educate users in spotting fake news and rumours.

Fake News plagues India’s WhatsApp users

News story. Due to rapid technology advancement in India, digital literacy has had too little time to develop. Now both the government and social media platforms have woken up to the massive problem of fake news.

Pia Heikkilä Photo Pexels, Pia Heikkilä

11.10.2018

Each morning a deluge of WhatsApp messages arrives at almost every Indian’s smartphone.  They vary from the simple ‘Good morning’ – greeting to the more optimistic ‘Cure for Cancer found’ revelations. And there is everything else in between: sinister warnings of jewellery thieves operating in the area, Bollywood gossip and even pornography bloopers.

According to WhatsApp, some 65 billion messages are sent every day all over the world and the bulk of these originate from India.

WhatsApp is a lifeline for many of India’s 300 million smartphone users. It is how Indians choose to communicate most of their daily dealings with their families, servicemen and even with schools and police.

There has always been fake news, people have always loved to gossip.  The platforms have just changed.

There is a downside to it. WhatsApp is claimed to the main carrier of fake news and viral hoaxes.

In fact, India’s fake news phenomena has itself become real news. In recent times, mobs have lynched at least 25 people across India after reading false rumours spread on WhatsApp.

Fake news is easily spread through the thousands of groups, each of which can have a maximum of 256 members. They work as a type of private chat room where people comment on messages in real time.

From monetary gain and maliciousness to concerned family members

The phenomena of spreading rumours is hardly new, says Ponnurangam Kumaraguru, Associate Professor at the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology (IIIT).

“There has always been fake news, people have always loved to gossip.  The platforms have just changed. Nowadays there are dozens of ways in which you can share information,” he says.

People spread fake news for many different reasons, says Kumaraguru.

“There is anything from monetary gain, to get traffic to a website or just to be malicious and pass the time,” he says.

“Some are simply well-meaning relatives or friends, concerned about an issue,” he adds.

India never had a culture of PCs or laptops, which meant digital literacy never had time to develop.

“The cost of phones came down as did the cost of data packages. Technology has advanced in India in the last five years, but in that period people have had no time to get to grips with all the information and media available,” says Kumaraguru.

Millions of people in Delhi use WhatsApp messaging platform daily.

WhatsApp cooperating with authorities to solve the problem

India needs help when it comes to digital literacy, and both educators and authorities have started to respond to the issues.

The government too has woken up to the problem. Central government has begun demanding more action from WhatsApp to design a digital literacy programme to educate users in spotting fake news and rumours.

The Facebook-owned messaging platform is co-operating with Indian organisations, such as the Centre for Social Research on how to boost users’ digital literacy skills.

Creating a technology to help users identify fake messages would help India to curb the spread of potentially dangerous material.

Technology can also train people to become more media-savvy.

“We realised there is a need to do something. Firstly, we set up a hotline where users can forward any fake messages. Based on the analysis of these messages, we aim to build a model and tool, which people can use to test the credibility of messages,” says Kumaraguru.

Such a machine learning-based solution will be capable of identifying any fake materials such as pictures, videos and even audio recordings.

“This will make people more able to identify misinformation – not just on WhatsApp but on other platforms as well,” he says.

Technology can also train people to become more media-savvy.

“If the tool decides a message is fake content, over a period of time users can be trained to understand the reasons for this and use it themselves too. This will improve the overall digital literacy of the users,” concludes Kumaraguru.

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