With zero tolerance for ‘harmful behaviour’, WhatsApp bans 2 million accounts in India

Social media firms need to take preventive measures to curb fake news, say users


July 18, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

With zero tolerance for ‘harmful behaviour’, WhatsApp bans 2 million accounts in India

Delhi Riots in February 2020 were fanned by a flood of fake news, videos and hate messages through WhatsApp

From May 15 to June 15, 2021 social messaging platform WhatsApp has banned two million accounts across India declaring that its top focus was to prevent the rampant misuse of the platform that has caused distress and conflicts among the citizens in the past.

Ever since its launch in India about 10 years ago, Facebook-owned messaging platform has made rapid strides in India in terms of adoption by users. It has galloped to almost 500 million accounts in India, making it by far the world’s biggest market for the extremely popular app.

The rapid growth of WhatsApp, in India and elsewhere in the world, has also come with its own set of challenges, notably spread of fake news, rumors and hate speech. Being the largest market, India has also been the biggest victim of the abuse of the platform. Though for years, like all BigTech firms, WhatsApp tried to dodge its responsibility in the failure to control such messages flitting across its network, mounting social and political backlash has forced it to act.

In its monthly transparency report, published recently, the company noted that there had been a significant rise in harmful or unwanted messaging on the platform that had been taking place unregulated and uncontrolled. The company during this period had received about 345 grievances from people in India in relation to issues such as ban appeal, account support and safety support. The company says it took remedial action in response, but found majority of the users seeking to restore their accounts or asking for product support or account support.

In 63 cases, where the accounts had been blocked, WhatsApp restored the access following complaints and clarifications by users. The platform says in its report that with its advanced AI technology and monitoring, it successfully detected abuse and acted on it. WhatsApp has been detrimental to the practise of spamming stating that close to ninety-five percent of the bans were a result of unauthorised bulk messaging on the platform. The app with advancement in technology has increased in sophistication enabling it to trace more accounts than before indulging in the malpractice of spamming.

WhatsApp’s actions come in the backdrop of widespread  abuse of the platform that over the past several years, leading to lynching of dozens of persons, mainly Muslims, and sparked off several riots across the country- the Delhi riots of 2020.

Inflicting injury, and propagating extremist views in the name of politics and religion found widespread expression in the Facebook-owned messaging app. There are countless instances of fake messages that were circulated widely by third parties or individuals with vested interests, or groups being created for conveying extremist ideas and opinions, mainly against the Muslims in India.

For instance, the Delhi riots that began on February 23, 2020 had been fanned by misleading messages of views and ideas against the Muslims. Instigating messages such as how to spot twelve signs of Jihad, appeals for boycotting Muslims both economically and socially based on one-sided propagandas were disseminated like wildfire through WhatsApp that came in as a handy tool for the right-wing extremists.

Videos were also prepared and circulated in which the theme revolved around the danger the majority community was in, and how the minority was dominating the former, and that a fight between the two was impending, with such baseless rumors a bloody riot took place that shook the capital, Delhi for nearly 10 days. Similar instances of fake messages had occurred across Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, creating an atmosphere of fear and apprehension in the minds of the people.

“When it comes to laws, there aren’t any at present that can counter fake news but, if the spread of fake news leads to violence or any form of physical or mental harm then as in the case of Delhi riots many laws are applicable,” says Ravi Dev Sharma, who is a lawyer in Noida, near Delhi. Sharma goes on to say that fake news  affects people’s daily lives. “February 14 is celebrated as Valentine’s day, but some people claim that ‘Shaheed Diwas’ is also celebrated on the same day. It is when freedom fighters Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru were hanged by the British in Lahore jail. Without verification, the message was mass forwarded across WhatsApp groups and individual accounts that led to misunderstanding, because in reality Shaheed Diwas is celebrated on  March 23. I feel some preventive measures had to be taken as a counter to this blind sharing of information across the many social media platforms.”

Some users agree on the capacity of the platform for the spread of fake news. “There is no need at all to forward messages unnecessarily. Why does everyone has to forward every bit of information he or she receives. If there is a message on Covid-19 forwarded by some government body, which means it is accurate then it should be forwarded and not any and all information. As for the Delhi riots I would like to point that whatever decision an individual or group takes to act on a particular issue shouldn’t be publicized as everyone in this country doesn’t have the time or need to know what an insignificant small group or individual might be thinking or doing. The riots and violence are to be condemned, so is this malpractice of fake messaging that is at the root of many conflicts in today’s digital world,” answers Ajay Singh who is a former college student.

Learning from such instances of ‘harmful behaviour’ on its platform that has increasingly led to the loss of life and property over the past few years, WhatsApp now seems to have taken strict action against such deviant individuals by removing their accounts.

However, some users, including those who have been impacted by WhatsApp’s actions, are less than happy. Some say that their accounts were blocked without any reason.

“The WhatsApp account of my sister-in-law has been removed for no good reason, I believe. I don’t understand she shared only what she believed in, with quotes and images. It was nothing inflammatory as such in nature, and she has shared similar content for a long time since she joined WhatsApp. It was all sudden and out of the blue. First we thought her WhatsApp account has been hacked but, then things came to light when we read a news article on the same. Now, we know that we are not alone,” says Muhammad Rashid, a resident of East Delhi.

Those whose accounts have been removed point critically at the company for not assessing effectively before terminating one’s account permanently. People who share the same distress like Rashid feel that they should be given a second chance and their account should be restored.

Belated though it is, WhatsApp’s action is welcomed. But in a country with 500 million users and fake news as well as hate speech still flowing across the network, it would need to keep a much closer vigil on the content being shared and crackdown much more severely and broadly.





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