WhatsApp – Fast Lane to Fake News in India

WhatsApp is huge in India. It reaches common man much more than Facebook or Twitter in India. It's so big that government authorities in India use WhatsApp for information dispersal or get information. For a lot of people in India WhatsApp is their window to Internet. For good or bad a lot of people in India use WhatsApp to get news. Most of them get this news while being part of a big groups as forwards. This makes it a rich medium for any controversial news to go viral. Also a good medium for scammers.

Recently when prime minister of India mentioned a WhatsApp forward about a beggar using Point of Sale while talking about how society is going cashless and everyone including beggars are adopting.

He stated 1

I don't know how far it is true but there is a video going viral on Whatsapp of a beggar being told by a man that though he wanted to help, he does not have change (emphasis is mine)
- Modi, PM of India

Even the PM of India has difficulty in identifying truthfulness of an item which is clearly fake. The alternative is he clearly knew it was false but wanted to further his cause by raising doubt by stating I don't know how far it is true . Either way it shows clearly how big the WhatsApp market is for false news and how quickly they become viral.

Do you know what is the best security feature of the new Rs.2000/- note released by RBI ,  you will be surprised to know how modi is playing the game.
It is printed by intaglio printing method and hence is a colour shredding note. Means the colour of the note will gradually disappear and in a span of maximum 3 years the note will lose all its pink colour and almost become a white paper which will be invalid.
Even if you stock the note it will become invalid in 3 years , so it has to come to bank after 2 year if you want it to be valid.
So every 3 years it is a automatic demonetization of RS 2000/- note.
Now let's see how people stock the black money.
Great Idea Modi Ji.👏👏👏👏👏
Forwarded.. As received.

The message above is another WhatsApp forward a friend of mine received. Check the last line Forwarded.. As received which is somewhat like I don't know how far it is true. It means the forwarder knows it's probably fake, doesn't want to take responsibility for it but still want spread the news.

This was not it. The next day after demonetization announcement by PM I got 2 a forward from a contact about NanoGPS in new ₹2000 note. Now this contact is a senior software engineer in a reputed firm. I was shocked to see this forward. I couldn't figure if he was playing mischief or was it lack of knowledge. In couple of hours I got a call and messages if I had read about the NanoGPS and how true it was.

Anyone with a little knowledge about GPS system would know it's really really difficult 3 to embed a powered GPS receiver inside a thin currency note. At max you can embed an RFID but even that is difficult and expensive. At best I could think of was a bar code instead of serial no and make accountants record it against every transaction and give it a fancy marketing name NanoGPS 4. But even that is a mammoth effort and practically impossible. That's when I knew this was a case of fake news which wants to be real. No one has seen the currency notes yet, the technology has a cool name and sounds true coming from a software engineer, everything that's needed for fake news to go viral. In couple of days it was on TV. Now I don't know if my contact was the creator of this or he smartly forwarded this piece of information knowing there is a good chance that this will be trusted.

How do we fight fake news?

We have read about how big the fake news on Facebook during this election season. WhatsApp played a similar issue during our 2014 election. Even though WhatsApp wasn't as big as it is now, it fed the low quality news channels. Now WhatsApp is much bigger and problem too. If you ask any sensible person in India whats the one setting they like on WhatsApp, they answer would be "mute on groups".

Government intervention in dangerous than useful.

This is not to say WhatsApp is not used for good work. I know lots of people who use it for productive work. Hence it is important to control this menace with out government interference. Recently a district collector of Indore issued an order 5 banning Social Media Posts on de-monetization which are objectionable as per them. This on top looks like a solution for fake news but it isn't. In fact this one is dangerous to real news than fake news. Hence the government intervention should be limited to spreading real news than controlling the medium or expression.

It's difficult to fight fake news issue keeping the app's end to end encryption safe but it's not impossible. Today our email clients can fight a lot of spam by just pattern recognition offline. It's important for us to fight this without losing the privacy or end to end encryption. Some of the ways WhatsApp can fight this issue with out hurting privacy, For example, providing an option to mark numbers as spammers similar to emails. Providing API with e2e encryption intact. So external systems can be built to validate news. A service as simple as forwarding and getting a response when users wish. There has been some innovation on Facebook post-election. Now we need some creative, pro-privacy innovation on WhatsApp.

But more than a technical issue, this is an issue with our critical thinking process. How do we make our people think? Think about it and let me know.


  1. In video its around minute 37, he speaks in Hindi and i am quoting the translated version from The Economic Times.
  2. I reinstalled WhatsApp after they enabled end to end encryption on a spare phone. I read the messages once a week or so. I don't use it actively neither do I recommend to anyone.
  3. It's impossible
  4. Similar to "Military grade encryption" or "scientifically proven"
  5. The order was issued in Hindi, here is the translation provided by Internet Freedom Foundation.

8 Responses

  1. Please note that whatsapp already has “Report spam” option when unknown contacts talk with you. Also, the spam you’re talking about is usually forwarded to you by the people whom you can’t block for obvious reasons (like them being your parents or uncles).

    Having said that, I think we will have to keep on forcing our children to read and read more to make sure they don’t end up as dumbfucks.

  2. Ayyappa says:

    Fake News seem to be have played a role in US elections also.

    Apart from those you mentioned above, my older relatives were sharing such stuff in WhatsApp like NRN praising Modi, what foreign media is saying about demonetization (each were not true, one simple search in google would have shown that) which was completely turning the stories etc. There are a lot more.

    In addition to these, Govt is using advertising money to good effect too. Yesterday Kerala’s FM stations were flooded with ads about using Aadhar for banking, mobile wallets etc. Narratives on the original problems this was supposed to solve, current issues etc is changed effectively.

    Opposition in the country is decimated also using similar means. Kerala’s Finance Minister had raised objections on demonetization within hours of its announcement. Now slowly the memes are getting released against him. Fables about an intelligent fool vs chaiwala’s practical logic etc. This is also a strategy – to do character assassination of opponents. Discredit them so much that they are no longer taken seriously. Rahul Gandhi, Kejriwal, Kanhaiya Kumar (that he had SUVs and iPhones), now Mamta is getting there (already started getting such forwards) and left leaders.

    Now coming to what we could do –
    – someone i follow was saying it is no longer right to remain silent, avoiding the dirt on our fingers, getting into the muddy war. When we see something that is not correct, among our close acquaintances atleast, we should point it out. Even at risk of exposing our political leanings. Not to turn into cyber warriors, but just correct with the right news or point out that something is fake.
    – encourage people to search for news, read the actual sources, listen to videos of what people said. think and judge for themselves. it is easy to take a sentence of what someone said and create a troll giving it completely different connotation.

    Sorry for long comment. Maybe we should educate within our circle of influence and hope it spreads.

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