Fearmongering Rumors

The Indian government wants to hold Facebook accountable for its role in a wave of mob violence that hit the country in late spring.

The problem comes from false rumors, usually about groups of outsiders coming into a village to kidnap children, that have spread rampantly across the Facebook-owned encrypted messaging app, WhatsApp, WIRED reports.

Over the spring and summer, there have been numerous cases where people who read the rumors perceived visitors to be the kidnappers of whom they were warned. In some instances, these people formed violent mobs and killed the strangers. From the start of January 2017 through July 2018, 33 people were killed during 69 violent events.

Weak Response

In response, the Indian government pointed fingers at Facebook and demanded backdoor access to users' encrypted peer-to-peer messages or permanent records of all of the WhatsApp messages sent and forwarded within India. But because WhatsApp's value comes from its perceived security, Facebook has been hesitant to comply.

Instead, Facebook opted to launch digital literacy education campaigns, which in theory would help people recognize misleading media or rumors — one of the oft-forwarded messages included a video that appeared to be CCTV footage of an Indian child being abducted via motorbike which actually originated from an anti-child-kidnapping awareness ad that had been filmed and aired in Pakistan.

But there's little evidence that digital literacy efforts accomplish much beyond shifting the burden of responsibility down to the individual WhatsApp user.

Crucial Leverage

Much of the frustration, according to WIRED, comes from the local perception that Facebook is interested in rolling out and testing WhatsApp features in the Indian market without giving enough thought to damage control, even well after the fact.

But the Indian government does have some leverage over Facebook — Facebook has been waiting on approval for a mobile payment platform within WhatsApp in India. As other mobile payment systems move into India, Facebook is eager for a piece of the action. So far, it's unclear just how much sway India gains from holding up the process, but it's possible we could see this leverage used to elicit a stronger response to WhatsApp fueled violence from Facebook in the future.


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