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Opinion

WhatsApp, murder and the dark side of social media

Amid controversy over lynchings in India, message service must boost support in emerging markets

Facebook's WhatsApp messaging service has clearly failed to deal with the downsides of its services in emerging economies.   © Reuters

No company wants to see its products caught up in mob violence, as Facebook's WhatsApp has been in India, following a spate of allegations that it is being used to facilitate lynchings.

Yet beyond the tragedy of the acts themselves, they also represent a double setback for founder Mark Zuckerberg, as he struggles to avoid a growing backlash against his company around Asia.

The latest bad headlines arrived on the weekend of July 14-15, with reports that police in the southern Indian state of Karnataka had arrested around 30 people, allegedly involved in the lynching earlier in the month of a man named Mohammad Azam, following rumors about threats to local children spread via a WhatsApp group.

That killing is the latest in a series of violent episodes linked to the service. At least 33 Indians have been killed in the last 18 months after online rumors about child safety, according to India Spend, an online data portal. Prior to 2017, such stories were all-but unknown.

WhatsApp has become a focus in this debate in part because of its huge popularity in India and emerging Asia more broadly. The service has 200 million active Indian users, making it WhatsApp's largest market globally. Continued expansion in high-growth markets like India is crucial to justifying the $19 billion Zuckerberg paid for the nascent service back in 2014.

Gruesome though these lynchings are, this focus on WhatsApp is actually welcome. For all of its size and importance, it has been strangely missing from recent debates about online disinformation, which have focused almost entirely on Facebook and Twitter.

This is odd, because WhatsApp is actually a perfect platform for "fake news." The service is beloved by groups of users in countries like India, who use it to gossip and share pictures and videos. A widely cited article in the Wall St Journal earlier this year noted how WhatsApp's systems struggle to cope each morning as tens of millions of Indians forward brightly colored images bearing good morning messages.

Yet precisely because WhatsApp is used so widely among groups of friends, it is especially vulnerable to dubious forwarded material. Academics who study online communication call this a problem of "information cascades," meaning unreliable information that courses through digital social networks.

Sometimes this is inadvertent, as when anxious rural users in India forward along warnings about a stranger in their village. Just as often, though, it is deliberate, as malicious groups spread hateful messages for their own ends. The front cover of India Today magazine made this point in brutal fashion, featuring the service's iconic green and white logo re-crafted to look like a bomb with a lit fuse, under the headline "the weaponisation of WhatsApp."

India's authorities condemned the service earlier in July, saying "WhatsApp must take immediate action to end this menace" and arguing that it has not done enough to stop the spread of false information in general.

Sensing a potential backlash, WhatsApp responded with a letter to India's government, arguing it was "horrified by these terrible acts of violence," and full-page adverts in Indian newspapers giving advice on how to spot fake news. It is also trialing a new feature in which it marks "forwarded" material, with the hope of helping users distinguish dubious viral content.

To the extent WhatsApp is to blame for the violent incidents, these basic steps seem unlikely to make much of a difference. Even so, some caution is still needed. India has a regrettably widespread problem with mob killings, which were common long before WhatsApp. It is far from clear that the social media service is causing a significant increase. Similar scare episodes about threats to children have been common in other countries, notably various pedophile scares in the U.K. The real culprit behind these lynchings is likely to be a combination of long-standing social tensions, for example caste conflicts, and feeble local policing.

Yet whatever the truth of the allegations in any specific case, WhatsApp in particular and Facebook in general are clearly failing to get to grips with the downsides of their services in emerging economies.

Facebook has been criticized for its slow response to worries about hate speech spreading over its network, which led it to be temporarily shut down in Sri Lanka earlier this year. The most troubling example has come in Myanmar, when United Nations investigators accused the U.S. social media giant in March of having played "a determining role" in long-running violence against the Rohingya minority.

Facebook rejects this accusation, and it has since invested more resources to combat problems of online disinformation around Asia, but it still does not have an office in Myanmar.

Yet if this slow-moving response is a problem for Facebook, it is doubly so for WhatsApp, which is a famously lean service. When Zuckerberg bought it in 2014, it had only 35 engineers. Today it clearly still lacks the resources needed to understand and mitigate the effects its service might have in countries like India.

WhatsApp is a troubling presence in the "fake news" debate for one further reason, namely that its messages offer a more private form of communication than either Facebook or Twitter. The service is also encrypted. This makes it hard for authorities to police, until it is too late.

The result is contradictory. On the one hand WhatsApp provides free message services to hundreds of millions of poorer users, for the price of an inexpensive data connection. The economic benefit from the service is huge. And yet it is increasingly obvious that WhatsApp, in common with other social media, is playing a problematic role in emerging societies like India and Myanmar which have deep social divisions and relatively weak mainstream media institutions.

At one level the solution to India's spate of lynchings lies not in technology at all, but greater investment in basic law and order. Companies like Facebook also tend to point to increased media literacy and education as long-term solutions. This may be part of the answer, but it is unlikely to be enough. And it is hardly a quick enough response to the immediate challenges.

More important is that profitable businesses like Facebook and Twitter begin to invest more in the emerging economies in which they operate. This means rapidly setting up new teams with knowledge of local culture and institutions, who can respond quickly when violence flares up, and develop local answers to local problems. Establishing proper offices in countries like Myanmar or in individual regions of large countries like India must be a critical part of this.

The world's social media giants are not doing enough to deal with the downsides their platforms bring to developing nations, including India. Services like WhatsApp have huge benefits, but they are disruptive. Until that disruption is mitigated, Zuckerberg's Asian headaches are not going to go away.

James Crabtree is an associate professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He is the author of "The Billionaire Raj."

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