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WhatsApp Just Told India's Government That It Cannot Fight Misinformation Alone

The company responded to a statement from an Indian ministry after it was pulled up for not doing enough to prevent rumors leading to more than a dozen lynchings since May.

Posted on July 4, 2018, at 6:23 a.m. ET

Sam Panthaky / AFP / Getty Images

Indian members from the Vaadi community participate in a protest in support of Shantadevi Nath, who was killed by a mob that falsely believed she was intent on abducting children on July 2.

WhatsApp has told India's government it needs support from law enforcement and civil society to fight fake news and misinformation on its platform in India, after the company was accused of helping to spread hoaxes that led to a string of violent deaths.

The Facebook-owned instant messaging service has more than 200 million users in India, its largest market, and said in a letter, seen by BuzzFeed News, that it cannot solve the misinformation problem alone.

"We believe that false news, misinformation and the spread of hoaxes are issues best tackled collectively: by government, civil society and technology companies working together," the letter says.

WhatsApp’s letter is a response to a statement released on Tuesday by India’s information and technology ministry, which expressed concern over more than a dozen lynchings across the country since May, fueled primarily by hoaxes, rumors, and fake news spread over WhatsApp. In the latest incident, on Sunday, police said angry mobs inspired by rumors spread through the app killed five innocent people, suspecting them of being child abductors.

"The [ministry] has taken serious note of these irresponsible messages and their circulation [over WhatsApp]," the ministry's statement said. It added that government officials have conveyed "deep disapproval" about the recent incidents of lynching to WhatsApp’s senior management.

"[WhatsApp] cannot evade accountability and responsibility specially when good technological inventions are abused by some miscreants who resort to provocative messages which lead to spread of violence," the ministry's statement said.

"The Government has also conveyed in no uncertain terms that WhatsApp must take immediate action to end this menace and ensure that their platform is not used for such malafide activities."

In response, WhatsApp’s letter states that the company is "horrified by these acts of violence" and outlines steps it has recently taken to prevent the spread of misinformation, such as giving group admins the power to decide who gets to send messages within individual groups, and allowing users to distinguish which messages have been "forwarded."

The company also announced on Tuesday that it would give up to $50,000 to independent researchers studying how misinformation spreads through the platform and how political parties can use it to disseminate propaganda and potentially influence elections, among other things.

WhatsApp’s growth in India, a country where millions of people are rapidly coming online thanks to falling smartphone and data prices, has exploded in the last few years. But the platform is an effective vector for the spread of fake news and hoaxes leading to concerns from both the government and citizens at large. All messages sent through WhatsApp are encrypted, which means that no one — not even WhatsApp — can see them, making policing a challenge.

According to a report from the Indian Express, India’s government will summon representatives of WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter to a meeting about the issue.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.