WhatsApp Announces $50,000 Grant for Fake News Research After India Lynchings

"False news, misinformation and spread of hoaxes are issues best tackled collectively: by government, civil society and technology companies working together," WhatsApp said.


Mobile messaging platform WhatsApp has announced a number of steps in a bid to tackle the issue of hoax messages that have led to several incidents of lynching in India. The Facebook-owned service said that it will allocate a grant of $50,000 to researchers to study how fake news spreads across social media, and ways to curb it.

“For this first phase of our program, WhatsApp is commissioning a competitive set of awards to researchers interested in exploring issues that are related to misinformation on WhatsApp. The WhatsApp Research Awards will provide funding for independent research proposals that are designed to be shared with WhatsApp, Facebook, and wider scholarly and policy communities,” the company said in a statement, after the Indian government expressed concern over the use of the platform for spread of rumors in the country.

WhatsApp will also launch a new feature to mark out forwarded posts, which are potential spam messages, from genuine messages. The firm said it has been testing a new label in India that would serve as a “signal for recipients to think twice before forwarding” a content, by letting the user know if it was written by the person they know or is a potential rumor.

Also, WhatsApp group administrators will be able to decide who can post messages on the group.

As part of efforts to inform people about the spread of misinformation, the firm will launch public safety campaigns, including distribution of educational material and conducting of news literacy workshops.

“We also respond to valid law enforcement requests to help them investigate crimes. And soon, we will start an engagement program with law enforcement officials around India so they are familiar with our approach and how we can be helpful,” WhatsApp said in its response to the Indian government on July 4. Saying that it is “horrified” by the “terrible acts” of violence, the company added that “false news, misinformation and spread of hoaxes are issues best tackled collectively: by government, civil society and technology companies working together.”

Indian IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had earlier urged the company to take steps to curb the spread of fake news and rumors on the platform. “Lynching of people by mob because of mass circulation of misinformation is unfortunate and alarming,” Prasad had said, adding that WhatsApp “must remain accountable, responsible and vigilant,” and ensure that this platform is not misused.

Misinformation circulated on the mobile app, such as rumors involving child kidnappers, have led to mob fury in many places in India, leading to lynching of persons later identified to be innocent. Over a dozen people have been killed in various parts of the country, including eight in the past week, after they were suspected of being criminals by people who believed fake WhatsApp messages.

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