The Dangers of Fake News and WhatsApp

In July of 2018, 32-year-old software engineer Mohammed Azan went on a picnic with three of his friends ๐Ÿ‘ฌ in a small Indian town called Badar. 

Little did Azan know that mere days earlier, the townspeople of Badar had been using a private messaging ๐Ÿ’ฌ app called WhatsApp ๐Ÿ“ฑ to warn each other of local child ๐Ÿ‘ถ abductions. 

When one of Azanโ€™s friends was seen handing out pieces of chocolate ๐Ÿซ to small children, accusations about Azan and his friends spread on WhatsApp. Soon, a mob of over 32 people formed around the group and began to beat them brutally, calling them kidnappers.

The police ๐Ÿš“ ultimately discovered Azan alone, badly beaten, and dead.

Unfortunately, violent attacks such as Azanโ€™s is just one of the dangers involved in an increased worldwide ๐Ÿ—บ๏ธ use of WhatsApp. 

In order to understand these dangers, itโ€™s important to understand ๐Ÿ’ก how WhatsApp works.

What is WhatsApp?

Started by two computer ๐Ÿ’ป programmers Brian Acton and Jan Koum, WhatsApp was founded based on a strong dedication to libertarianism, privacy ๐Ÿ›ก๏ธ, and anonymity. 

Since its beginning, WhatsApp has accumulated over 900 million users worldwide. Plus, in 2014, the app was purchased by #Facebook for $19 million ๐Ÿค‘ in their largest #acquisition ever. 

WhatsApp is unique because it is not a social #media #platform; instead, itโ€™s a private messaging system with no servers to hold ๐Ÿ“ฆ those messages. Once a message is sent, itโ€™s encrypted and kept anonymous.

Additionally, WhatsApp is special because it allows users to send mass messages and forwards โฉ without spreading any of the original posterโ€™s information.

In areas where hard line #Internet ๐ŸŒ access is not available, people form WhatsApp groups centered on topics from soccer โšฝ to their favorite band ๐ŸŽธ or political affiliations. As a result, itโ€™s an increasingly common form of mass communication.

The big deal about WhatsApp

It may be tempting to assume that Azanโ€™s murder was an isolated incident; however, there are startling statistics to imply otherwise. In fact, this data demonstrates how personal safety is only one of the dangers of WhatsApp:

๐Ÿ“ฒ  In 2018, 24 people were killed in India because of WhatsApp’s fake rumors.

๐Ÿ“ฒ In the first round of the 2018 Brazilian presidential election, only eight percent of all political messages exchanged on WhatsApp were true.

๐Ÿ“ฒ In Mexico, images of death and torture on WhatsApp were being used to influence the outcome of their presidential election.

๐Ÿ“ฒ In America, the FBI is concerned that Russia, China and #Iran uses WhatsApp to undermine our confidence in American institutions and perhaps affect the 2020 presidential election.

Proponents of WhatsApp provide the following as their reasoning for supporting the app: 

๐Ÿ‘ In geographical areas without hard line Internet access, or in which most citizens cannot afford Internet, simply owning a cell phone with WhatsApp installed allows them to communicate with family ๐Ÿ‘จโ€๐Ÿ‘ฉโ€๐Ÿ‘ฆ and friends.

Additionally, when it comes to political elections, WhatsApp does help word get out about lesser-known candidates.

๐Ÿ‘ WhatsAppโ€™s privacy protects the free expression of ideas.

๐Ÿ‘ The app is free and has been shown to increase ๐Ÿ“ˆ voter turnout.

On the contrary, here are some arguments from opposers of WhatsApp:

๐Ÿ‘Ž  WhatsApp rumors can spread like wildfire ๐Ÿ”ฅ. 

๐Ÿ‘Ž  The app can be easily abused by anyone who hacks into the system. Hackers can quickly and seamlessly send out thousands of messages filled with misinformation.

๐Ÿ‘Ž  Communication on WhatsApp is often between family and friends, so even false information seems more reliable when itโ€™s shared.

Additionally, since the source of the message is unknown, individuals innocently pass this information on without questioning its accuracy.

Whatโ€™s being done

WhatsApp and other social media platforms have taken the following strides to help reduce the negative effects of this rapid exchange of false information:

โœ”๏ธ WhatsApp has limited usersโ€™ ability to forward messages to only 20 people, as opposed to the original 256. 

โœ”๏ธ WhatsApp has labeled all forwarded messages as”forwarded”.

โœ”๏ธ In October of 2018, Facebook created a war room with the sole focus of searching the Internet and to find dangerous instances of misinformation and correct them.

However, this war room is not the most effective tool, as its users cannot access all WhatsApp messages due to their encryption and anonymity. 

What more can we do to solve the WhatsApp problem? Here are my two suggestions:

1. Require more elaborate sign-up ๐Ÿ“ procedures for the app

As of now, WhatsApp only requires a phone number for sign-up. However, if they were to set up a #verification requirement for account creation, they could potentially bar huge corporations from creating thousands of accounts to spread mass rumors.

2. Eliminate message forwarding

Unfortunately, WhatsApp simply cannot have the best of both worlds by keeping encrypted messages and forwarding capabilities. 

As demonstrated by Azanโ€™s death, the combination of completely private messages and anonymous forwarding abilities could ultimately lead to widespread false information that could threaten our #democracy – or worse, our lives.