One day after WhatsApp launched a tip line to combat misinformation ahead of a general election in India, the company running the project in partnership with the Facebook-owned messaging service revealed that its primary goal is to collect research, rather than immediately crack down on fake news in the world's biggest democracy.
On Tuesday, WhatsApp announced Checkpoint, a “tip line launched to understand and respond to misinformation during elections in India” with information about submitting suspicious messages. But when BuzzFeed News inquired about the tip line’s effectiveness after submitting several tips and receiving no responses, Proto, the Indian-based company that partnered with WhatsApp, posted an FAQ website that notes the project is “not a helpline” and isn’t primarily designed to provide feedback. Proto uses the tip line “only as a means to collect information that is otherwise inaccessible given the nature of private messaging."
The “tipline is primarily used to gather data for research, and not a helpline that will be able to provide a response to every user,” reads the site. Proto also clarified there is a 24-hour window after users submit a tip in which they should get either a determination of its authenticity, or a message saying the tip is “out of scope.”
A WhatsApp spokesperson said that Tuesday's announcement wasn't intended to suggest that all users would receive responses to tips regarding misinformation during the Indian election.
As part of the Checkpoint project, WhatsApp urged users to send suspicious links, texts, or photos to a phone number (+91-9643-000-888) that would log the tip. A team of human fact-checkers would then supposedly vet the information, and respond to tipsters with “an image or text in response identifying the rumor as true or false” with a link providing more context on the rumor itself. (Because WhatsApp is encrypted and based on person-to-person or small group communication, there is no way for the service to delete false information once it’s been shared between users.)
As BuzzFeed News tests show, and Proto’s own website confirms, users should not rely on the tip line to get a determination on suspicious information they send in. BuzzFeed News sent two links, three text samples, and three images, all related to Indian politics, to the dedicated phone number but received no determination on the contents’ veracity after more than 24 hours.
After sending inquiries to WhatsApp and Proto, the latter launched its FAQ website, which clarified the limitations and goals of the tip line. “We recognize we will receive far more submissions than we can ultimately verify and respond [to],” the site reads, noting that its goal is to collect data over the next four months to compile a report on misinformation to be released after the election.
Facebook is under immense pressure to stifle misinformation, particularly following the 2016 US presidential election in which Russian trolls used the company’s products in an attempt to manipulate voters. To that end, the company has added thousands of content moderators, while CEO Mark Zuckerberg has pledged to proactively police the company’s various services for evidence of foul play as elections take place around the globe.
“We want to make sure we do everything we can to protect the integrity of those elections,” Zuckerberg said last April about global elections in 2018 and 2019 while testifying before the US Senate.
Earlier this year, Facebook set up a hub in Singapore to monitor the social network in the run-up to the Indian elections and partnered with five fact-checking partners in the world’s second most populous country to debunk misinformation in five Indian languages beside English. On Monday, the company announced that it had suspended more than 800 political pages, groups, and accounts on Facebook and Instagram from both India and Pakistan for engaging in what it called “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”
Facebook has slowly made changes to WhatsApp — including placing stricter limits on message forwarding — to combat the spread of false rumors, and the tip line announced on Tuesday was the first initiative to address election-specific misinformation on the service.
It's questionable if WhatsApp could operate a misinformation checking service for millions of people, or if people would use a tip line in the first place. To contact the Checkpoint tip line, users must add the number to their phone’s address book, and then message the line when they come across something suspicious. Given that elections begin in eight days, many Indians may not even hear about the tip line before they vote. (Voting is expected to happen in seven stages across the country, according to reports, with polls closing on May 19.)
“This should have happened years ago,” said Claire Wardle, a TED research fellow who studies misinformation. “If you want to be serious about election interference or misinformation around elections, you should be setting the groundwork ahead of time.”
Last summer, Wardle helped oversee Comprova, a collaborative fact-checking project involving 24 newsrooms in Brazil, in which users also submitted suspicious content to a dedicated phone number ahead of the country’s presidential election. It garnered more than 105,000 claims between August and October, when the election was held, and the process was “labor-intensive” and overwhelming, she said. The experience highlighted the difficulty of responding directly to each individual claim on a case-by-case basis.
“Something like 45% of the world’s population is voting in 2019,” she added. “How can we prepare doing these whack-a-mole election projects?”
She recalled multiple submissions of a real photo of a ballot box in the back of the truck that was often accompanied by a caption that wrongly suggested that votes were being stacked against then-presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro. Comprova had to individually respond to each of those users who sent in a submission.
“What I’d love to test is for WhatsApp to let me do a daily roundup link that says, ‘Here are all the debunks today,'” Wardle said.
Ashkan Soltani, the former chief technology officer for the US Federal Trade Commission, expressed serious doubts that a tip line could function at scale with 200 million users. Still he remained optimistic that any information gleaned from it would be enlightening.
“From a research perspective, who would even forward messages and what are the messages that are going to be forwarded?” he asked. “But still, even if this captures .001% of WhatsApp spam, that’s .001% more than they had before.”