31 May 2018

The Washington Post: “Why WhatsApp may present a greater challenge to democracy than Facebook”

India’s “WhatsApp First” election, as it has been dubbed, comes at a time when parent company Facebook has been accused of undermining democracy by failing to control hate speech, Russian disinformation and inaccurate news. In developing countries such as Burma and Sri Lanka, false stories on Facebook have sparked riots, lynchings and religious violence. In the United States, accounts run by Russian operatives shared disinformation and divisive messages to up to 126 million people.

But activists in many parts of the world say WhatsApp — used by 1.5 billion people globally and known for its encrypted messages that even company executives can’t read — presents an even greater challenge to democracy.

The platform is ripe for abuse because so many of its users are new to the Internet and not digitally literate, activists say. And because conversations happen within private groups, it can be difficult for the broader public to correct false information.

It is getting out of hand, and WhatsApp doesn’t know what to do about it, said Nikhil Pahwa, a digital rights activist. The difficulty with WhatsApp is that it’s impossible to know how this information is spreading. It’s very easy for a political party to spread misinformation and no one can trace it back to them.

Annie Gowen & Elizabeth Dwoskin

Let’s encrypt everything”, they said; “This is to ensure people’s privacy!” they said. All fine, until people engage in criminal acts, spread disinformation and incite violence, with no way to trace them and hold them accountable. If tech companies don’t make some changes to their products, I am increasingly convinced that the recent trend of governments blocking social networks and messaging apps will soon become the norm rather than an exception.

Supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party hold their cellphones and shout slogans
A police officer stands guard as supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party hold their cellphones and shout slogans during a campaign rally addressed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Bangalore on May 8. (Aijaz Rahi/AP)

On the other hand, it’s hard to say which controls could be introduced here, and how effective would they be. In the case of WhatsApp, there already is a limit on the number of people in a group or broadcast list (256 members), but no limit on how many groups or broadcast lists you can have – and the limits can apparently be circumvented on rooted devices. It would probably be a good idea to reduce the maximum number of members in groups, and restrict broadcast lists to ‘verified’ businesses and individuals, at the same time removing encryption from messages to broadcast lists, so that at least these can be monitored for dangerous content. As a welcomed side-effect, it should curb ‘Good Morning!’ message spam as well.

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