WhatsApp is making headlines for all the wrong reasons lately, as the messaging service and parent company Facebook struggle to deal with problems related to its end-to-end encryption. So far, the most troubling thing about the two tech companies’ efforts, says entrepreneur and venture capitalist Bruce Croxon, is that there’s no viable solution in sight.
In India, where more than 200 million residents use the WhatsApp platform for text, voice and video messaging, a number of mob beatings and lynchings have occurred this year, reportedly sparked by false messages on WhatsApp. Yesterday, news surfaced of five agricultural workers being lynched in the western state of Maharashtra after they were surrounded by a 3,000-strong mob. The lynchings were said to be in response to a number of WhatsApp messages that had been warning of kidnappers in the region.
The Indian government has asked that WhatsApp take “immediate action” to prevent further social media-related fake news attacks from occurring.
“While the law and order machinery is taking steps to apprehend the culprits, the abuse of platforms like WhatsApp for repeated circulation of such provocative content are equally a matter of deep concern,” said India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology in a statement.
WhatsApp has responded by saying it is aware of the problem, admitting that its end-to-end encryption, which prevents servers or networks from intercepting messages, “facilitates privacy and security for all WhatsApp users, including people who might be using the platform for illegal activities,” says the company, which has stated that it is offering research rewards of up to US$50,000 for ideas on tackling the misinformation problem.
“WhatsApp is a powerful medium for political actors to connect and communicate with their constituents,” says the company. “However, it can also be misused to share inaccurate or inflammatory political content. We are interested in understanding this space both from the perspective of political actors and the voter base.”
Croxon calls fake news the “issue of our time.”
“The real headline is that Facebook doesn’t know what to do about it. They have no solution,” says Croxon, co-founder of Round 13 Capital, to BNN Bloomberg. “This thing that they own 100 per cent of and has become a valuable part of their network — you’ve got a platform that has to find a way to take responsibility, to at least let us know where these messages are coming from. And as we sit here today, no solution is in sight. That’s worrying.”
Croxon says that the appropriate amount of pressure has been brought to bear on tech giants like Facebook, Apple and Google to address the problem. “The right kinds of things are happening, but as soon as you put a band-aid on one thing, as long as you’ve got a social network like What’sApp, with no regulation, where you don’t know what’s going on, with no solution in sight, the problem is far from being over,” he says.
Facebook acquired WhatsApp for US$19.3 billion in 2014. Two years later, the company announced that it had “taken encryption to the masses” by providing end-to-end encryption on all its messaging media.