Fake Forwards: A Swarm of Hoax Reality

Fake forwards mean false news or misinformation spread unprecedently to intentionally or unintentionally deceive people. It also includes the term ‘unverified news’ under its ambit which essentially means that there might be a slight possibility that the news is true but is still being propagated around with no confirmation of authenticity of facts.

Introduction

In this present age which is social media frenzy, it does become a gritty task to get a stringent hold on the spread of inflammatory or deceiving posts, messages, texts, etc. We live in a time where sharing such data is just a few touches or clicks away. People have, overtime, developed the callous attitude of overlooking the contents of such data, leading to aggravation of adverse problems globally. Instead of being a legitimate means of dissemination of worldwide information, social media in the present times seems to be a platform which disrupts the public sphere leading to uncalled panic conditions. The idea behind such fake forwards is a malicious strategy, leading to the altercation of public interests. No doubt social media platforms garner huge popularity in a short while as the audience gets a fair opportunity to put forward their unfiltered opinions on any topic under the sun. Ideally, it is supposed to be a democratic forum where people nurture their intellect by exchange of information, but the presence of certain miscreants is inevitable leading to adverse situations.

Social Media acts as a facilitator of democracy by providing the public with equal access to information and equal opportunities to participate.[1]

Misuse of Social Media

WhatsApp, the Facebook owned social media giant is quite user-friendly and widely used all around the globe. People tend to share information with those dear to them and because of its end-to-end encryption policy it is practically impossible for it to filter the contents of the messages and stop the propagation of averse information.

In India, this social media platform is used by nearly two hundred million people.[2] WhatsApp has caused more than a few situations of chaos and turmoil in the country as can be observed in the following cases:

1. Mob Lynching

WhatsApp has had quite an influence in the spread of mob-related violence and killings on the grounds of baseless rumors. Especially those relating to child-abduction and organ harvesting. People circulate gory and inflammatory pictures and videos leading to attention that is uncalled for to make the headlines.

1.1. Jharkhand Lynching 2017

A message circulated through WhatsApp was what set off a spree of lynchings in Jharkhand. It caused the tribals to believe that their children were being targeted by abduction gangs.

‘…Suspected child lifters are carrying sedatives, injections, spray, cotton and small towels. They speak Hindi, Bangla and Malyali. If you happen to see any stranger near your house immediately inform local police as he could be a member of the child lifting gang,’ the message in Hindi said.[3]

Photos and videos of these attacks were circulated which gave rise to violent protests, roadblocks and a clash of the citizens with the police personnel in various areas of Jamshedpur. To add salt to the wound, in the ongoing unverified fiasco, the four people who were killed were Muslims. This crated a cloud of communal tension.

2. Lok Sabha Elections 2019

According to a finding by Reuters, WhatsApp clones and software tools costing just around fourteen dollars are found to be of help by Indian digital marketers and political activists to bypass anti-spam restrictions set up by the app. After past mob lynching incidents, WhatsApp restricted forwarding of messages to just five chats at a time. Reuters also found out that this app was being misused by some political parties for mass propagation by sending messages in bulk. But, just before the 2019 elections a hoax message was doing the rounds consisting of information regarding the voting process.

Reportedly, the message claims, ‘When you reach the polling booth and if you find that name is not in the voter list, just show your Aadhar card or voter ID and ask for ‘challenge vote’ under section 49A and cast your vote.’[4]

But the reality was that Section 49A of the Conduct of Elections Rules,1961 mentions only the designs of electronic voting machines.

Measures Taken to Curb the Spread of Fake News

Although WhatsApp continues with its end-to-end encryption policy, it has added certain measures to curb the spread of false messages leading to unforeseen incidents affecting mankind at large. It has limited the number of times a message can be forwarded in a personal chat to just once (especially keeping in mind the current pandemic). It has updated its website with a list of guidelines to be followed in the event of any individual feeling that he/she thinks that they have received a hoax forward.[5] The company is also testing a labelling feature where forwarded messages get marked distinctly so that the public stays even more careful of rumors. WhatsApp rolled out three ad-films in December, 2018 as a strategy to fight fake news especially ahead of election campaigns

1. Committee on Peace and Harmony

The Delhi government came up with certain guidelines to curb these malicious fake WhatsApp forwards after riots took place in parts of the city sometime in February, 2020 in which 45 people were killed. One such hoax Facebook post mentioned that Shahdara Deputy Commissioner (DCP) Amit Sharma succumbed to his injuries.

Delhi Legislative Assembly has constituted a new committee named ‘Committee on Peace and Harmony’ established as fake messages lead to a communal riot like situation in Delhi in which more than 45 people were killed. The committee is headed by AAP MLA Saurabh Bhardwaj who said that complaints would be received from campaigns via radios, newspapers and other media platforms. The committee encourages citizens to become whistleblowers who would be rewarded ten thousand rupees for filing their complaints as registered FIRs. It also launched a dedicated phone number and email-ID wherein people complain about hate content and fake news. Bhardwaj also said that such propagation of fake news or any abominable content would be treated as a communal offence leading to a jail term of three years. Delhi editions of major newspapers; campaigns through radio, newspapers and other media platforms; and a team of lawyers and IT experts was formed to provide technical assistance – complaints forwarded to police for deciding appropriation.

‘If you find anyone sharing communally inflammatory messages or video on WhatsApp or any Social Media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) then immediately send the screenshot or video to us’  – is what the advertisement said[6]

2. Gauba Committee

The Gauba Committee suggestions regarding measures and changes in the legal framework in order to deal with incidents of mob violence and lynching in an effective manner has made the Centre and State Governments responsible when it was to deal with lynchings and mob chastiser.  Ministry officials during one such meeting have mentioned that if social media propagates information which is found against the provisions of Sections 69 and 70 of the IT Act, they should be addressed in a time bound manner.

Fake Forwards and their Impact during the Pandemic

In times of an unregulated spread of a disease such as COVID-19, a surge in fake forwards only tend to make the situation worse on the global front. Hoax messages suggestive of natural remedies and unverified biological developments make the situation a lot more grim. Fake WHO protocols to fake Ministry of Health Affairs (India) circulars have been doing their rounds on WhatsApp which is only worsening the panic and chaos amongst all across the globe.[7] WhatsApp has now limited the forwarding of messages to just once at a time which will help in curbing the spread of fake forwards. This Facebook-owned platform successfully handled the situation as it was observed that there was a 25% decrease in message forwards globally.[8]

Over the years news audience has shown to be more vulnerable and naïve in terms asserting their fundamental rights and democratic participation on social media platforms. It can only be hoped now that with the governments and respective administrative institutions being strict about their laws and policies and putting in efforts to spread awareness about curbing down fake forwards, the citizens do their bit.


[1] Aasita Bali and Prathik Desai, Fake News and Social Media: Indian Perspective, Media Watch , available at https://mediawatchjournal.in/fake-news-and-social-media-indian-perspective/ ,Last visited on May 17,2020.

[2] Alexis C. Madrigal, India’s Lynching Epidemic and the Problem With Blaming Tech, The Atlantic, September 25,2019, available at https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/09/whatsapp/571276/, Last visited on May 17,2020.

[3] B Vijay Murthy, Jharkhand lynching: When a WhatsApp message turned tribals into killer mobs, Hindustan Times, May 22,2017, available at  https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/a-whatsapp-message-claimed-nine-lives-in-jharkhand-in-a-week/story-xZsIlwFawf82o5WTs8nhVL.html, Last visited on May 17,2020.

[4] Anonymous, WATCH-It’s Fake! WhatsApp forward doing rounds; spreading wrong info about voting process, Mirror Now, April 5,2019, available at https://www.timesnownews.com/mirror-now/in-focus/article/it-s-fake-whatsapp-forward-doing-rounds-spreading-wrong-info-about-voting-process-ahead-of-the-lok-sabha-2019-elections/394889, Last visited on May 17,2020

[5] https://faq.whatsapp.com/26000216

[6] Anonymous, Delhi Government’s War Against Fake News on WhatsApp: You Can go to Jail for 3 Years, News 18, March 5,2020, available at https://www.news18.com/news/tech/delhi-governments-war-against-fake-news-on-whatsapp-you-can-go-to-jail-for-3-years-2526115.html, Last visited on May 17,2020.

[7] Archit Mehta and Kinjal, Viral WhatsApp forward of ‘WHO lockdown protocol’ is fake, alt news, April 6,2020, available at https://www.altnews.in/viral-whatsapp-forward-of-who-lockdown-protocol-is-fake/, Last visited on May 17,2020.

[8] Vishal Mathur, WhatsApp’s Biggest Move Yet in The War Against Fake News: Message Forwards Limited to One, News 18, April 9.2020, available at https://www.news18.com/news/tech/whatsapps-biggest-move-yet-in-the-war-against-fake-news-message-forwards-limited-to-one-2567797.html, Last visited on May 17,2020.

Sarvashreshth Ballabh from Department of Law, University of Calcutta

Editor: Sanskriti Sood

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