WhatsApp: After killings in India, how the messaging app is being used to spread deadly fake news

The messages often discuss horrifying fake stories – which lead to equally violent real crimes

Andrew Griffin
Tuesday 03 July 2018 14:05 BST
Men pose with smartphones in front of displayed Whatsapp logo in this illustration September 14, 2017
Men pose with smartphones in front of displayed Whatsapp logo in this illustration September 14, 2017 (REUTERS/Dado Ruvic)

People are receiving messages warning them that people in their area are going to murder people and sell their body parts. Those suspected of being behind the crimes are beaten, lynched and killed.

It is a pattern that is being played out repeatedly throughout India. And the tragedy is that the messages are entirely fake, the men being beaten and killed entirely innocent.

The messages – which often describe horrifying crimes such as child abuse or organ harvesting – are being passed over WhatsApp, in a trend that is growing as the country gains access to the internet and to the communication technologies that it brings.

Local officials have pleaded with people not to believe or spread rumours circulated over social media. But they continue to spread, people continue to believe them – and that trust continues to have horrifying consequences in the real world.

WhatsApp is of course not spreading the hoaxes and rumours intentionally, and is not responsible for creating it. But many of the technologies that are otherwise thought of as features are being abused to spread false information: it allows information to spread incredibly quickly, without any oversight or way of tracing where it came from.

“Sadly some people also use WhatsApp to spread harmful misinformation,” WhatsApp said in a statement to Reuters. “We’re stepping up our education efforts so that people know about our safety features and how to spot fake news and hoaxes.”

Police in India this week said they had arrested 23 people over the lynching of five men suspected of being members of a gang of child kidnappers. It is just the latest of a series of deadly mob attacks, which are being fuelled by fast-spreading, hoaxes and rumours being spread online.

Police spokesman M Ramkumar said that the village had been abuzz for days with rumours spread through WhatsApp that a gang of child kidnappers were roaming around.

That meant that when five men from a nomadic community and had gone to a house to ask for food, they were suspected of being part of that rumoured gang, New Delhi Television reported. Those men were then killed, with the TV station showing a community centre splashed with blood where the men were locked up before they were brutally killed with sticks, rods and stones, as well as punches.

At least 20 people have been killed in similar attacks, and dozens more have been injured. The killings do not appear to be slowing.

Part of the reason that WhatsApp has become so central in the attacks is that it is simply incredibly popular; it is simply the way that any information spreads, for good or bad.

India has more than 200 million WhatsApp users, and it is easily the app's biggest market in the world. And it is continuing to grow: there are more than a billion phone subscribers who use a wide variety of social media platforms.

But WhatsApp is also specific in that it allows people to pass on information in a way that is unusually disconnected from its source. On public social media sites, information tends to be shared alongside where it has come from – either a link to a site or a post – but WhatsApp allows that context to be removed, simply by forwarding or broadcasting text quickly to an entire network.

WhatsApp has been testing technological responses to that problem, flagging forwarded text to make sure that people know it is the result of a round robin rather than having being written by the person sending them.

A WhatsApp message, however, is only a piece of text. The test only flags those messages that use the app's "forward" feature – so it doesn't track that those have simply been copy and pasted, or which simply restate information that has been heard somewhere else.

The fact that WhatsApp is entirely encrypted – a security not afforded on other more public platforms, or even many private ones – also means that those sharing such messages cannot actually be found. Authorities have repeatedly called for WhatsApp to weaken its encryption to allow police to read it, but the company has argued that doing so would also make the entire app insecure for everyone.

Privacy advocates fear that the new concern about hoaxes and rumours could be used to crackdown on discussion generally, and could serve as a useful excuse for organisations that want to weaken encryption for their own purposes. India has seemed increasingly interested in storing more data in the country and encouraging tech firms to allow authorities to have access to it.

The app does appear still to be mostly used for purposes entirely separate from the hoax messages. Those messages often spread through groups texts – but they are a tiny minority, with 90 per cent of messages being sent between two people, according to WhatsApp.

Even the hoax messages themselves don't tend to discuss the horrifying kind of crimes that lead to the attacks that are spreading across India. They often discuss stories of false jobs or fake medical advice, which spread quickly among people hoping they can prove useful to friends.

Messaging platforms are often used to spread news of the attacks after they have happened, too. The killings are often captured on mobile phones and then spread to social media, where they quickly spread across Indian states.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in