As Twitter finally gets serious about purging fake accounts, and YouTube says it will try to firefight conspiracy theories and fake news flaming across its platform with $25M to fund bona fide journalism, Facebook-owned WhatsApp is grappling with its own fake demons in India, where social media platforms have been used to seed and spread false rumors — fueling mob violence and leading to number of deaths in recent years.
This week Facebook has taken out full-page WhatsApp-branded adverts in Indian newspapers to try to stem the tide of life-threatening digital fakes spreading across social media platforms in the region with such tragic results.
It’s not the first time the company has run newspaper ads warning about fake news in India, though it does appear to be first time it’s responded to the violence being sparked by fakes spreading on WhatsApp specifically.
The full-page WhatsApp anti-fakes advert also informs users that “starting this week” the platform is rolling out a new feature that will allow users to determine whether a message has been forwarded. “Double check the facts when you’re not sure who wrote the original message,” it warns.
This follows tests WhatsApp was running back in January when the platform trialed displaying notifications for when a message had been forwarded many times.
Evidently WhatsApp has decided to take that feature forward, at least in India, although how effective a check it will be on technology-accelerated fakes that are likely also fueled by local prejudices remains to be seen.
Trying to teach nuanced critical thinking when there may be a more basic lack of education that’s contributing to fomenting mistrust and driving credulity, as well as causing the spread of malicious fakes and rumors targeting certain people or segments of the population in the first place, risks both being ineffectual and coming across as merely irresponsible fiddling around the edges of a grave problem that’s claimed multiple lives already.
Facebook also stands accused of failing to respond quickly enough to similar risks in Myanmar — where the UN recently warned that its platform was being weaponized to spread hate speech and used as a tool to fuel ethnic violence.
Reuters reports that the first batch of WhatsApp fake ads are running in “key Indian newspapers”, and images posted to Twitter show an English-language full-page advert — so you do have to question who these first ads are really intended to influence.
But the news agency reports that Facebook also intends to publish similar ads in regional dailies across India over the course of this week.
We’ve reached out to WhatsApp with questions and will update this story with any response.
“We are starting an education campaign in India on how to spot fake news and rumours,” a WhatsApp spokesman told Reuters in a statement. “Our first step is placing newspaper advertisements in English and Hindi and several other languages. We will build on these efforts.”
The quasi-educational WhatsApp fake news advert warns users about “false information”, offering ten tips to spot fakes — many of which boil down to ‘check other sources’ to try to verify whether what you’ve been sent is true.
Another tip urges WhatsApp users to “question information that upsets you” and, if they do read something that makes them “angry or afraid”, to “think twice before sharing it again”.
“If you are not sure of the source or concerned that the information may be untrue, think twice before sharing,” reads another tip.
The last tip warns that “fake news often goes viral” — warning: “Just because a message is shared many times, does not make it true.”
In recent times, Facebook has also run full-page ads in newspapers to apologize for failing to safeguard user data in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and taken out print adverts ahead of European elections to warn against attempts to spread fake news to try to meddle with democratic processes.