By Winny Sun
WhatsApp, a messaging app owned by Facebook, is end-to-end encrypted, which means its messages can only been seen by users. Protected from third parties like the government, the platform is highly secure. But because the app is very private, it has been a channel of misinformation, resulting in political and social upheavals in countries like Brazil and India.
Because phone carriers in Brazil provide data that allow people to use WhatsApp for free, the messaging app is one of the country’s most popular forms of communication. 44% of voters obtain political information through this channel. Unfortunately, the majority of the political content on this platform contains misleading or false information. Conspiracy theories involving political candidates have also been widely shared. The spread of misinformation is mainly due to the nature of the app. Since people on WhatsApp are involved in intimate and private conversations with each other, they are more likely to believe information that is shared. Since the breakout of the controversies, WhatsApp has removed accounts with abnormal activities and banned groups that purposely spread misinformation. But since messages are automatically encrypted, and the app has little oversight of the content, what WhatsApp will do in the future to rein in misinformation still appears to be uncertain.
In India where the service has 200 million users, WhatsApp has also been criticized for spreading rumors and inciting violence. The spread of child abduction rumors have led to mob violence, which resulted in multiple killings of innocent people. In response to government criticisms and public outrage, WhatsApp had since implemented a series of new features. To make people more aware of potential false information, the app now specifically labels content that has been forwarded by senders. It also has limit on the number of chats that each message can be forwarded to. While other countries in the world now have a limit of 20, India, due to its current social instability, has a limit of five groups. These measures are far from enough, however. As a result, looking ahead, WhatsApp is partnering with organizations and political parties in India to stop further misuse of the platform.
In the United States, Facebook is currently implicated in a series of controversies regarding privacy and misinformation. Overseas, WhatsApp struggles with similar problems. Even though social media has made communication more effective, it has also brought in problems that threaten our peaceful lives. Social media giants like Facebook will now need to take on greater responsibility to ensure the safety of the online environment.