Encryption and attribution: India’s fake news problem

WhatsAppened in the world’s largest democracy could soon hit closer to home

James Mortensen

Government and governance, Science and technology, Arts, culture & society | Australia, Asia, South Asia

20 May 2019

After over a month of polling and being haunted by fake news spread specifically through WhatsApp, India now eagerly awaits the outcome of its general election. Australia must start considering how it might deal with similar perils that India faced during this period, James Mortensen writes.  

Nothing illustrates the costs of democracy quite like an election – an event that manifests in Australia as a gauntlet of ill-fitting t-shirts and how-to-vote cards through which all those in search of their democratic rights, and democratic sausages, must travail.

Yet in a nation of over a billion people, the fulfilment of the promise of democracy required not only a single Saturday, but a month of rolling polls. The Indian election began on 11 April and finished on 19 May, with results to be announced on the 23rd of this month. It’s a long time to spend in the throes of an election; there are a lot of votes to count, and, as one might expect, there’s a lot to go wrong – especially in the era of social media and fake news.

Unfortunately, the biggest election in the world suffers a big social media problem – or more specifically, it has a WhatsApp problem. As the most popular social messaging platform in India, WhatsApp has become an integral part of the Indian social experience.

However, in recent years, parts of that social experience have proven to be deadly. WhatsApp messages have been tied directly to murders and lynchings across the country, prompting the social media company to place a variety of restrictions on Indian users in an attempt to curb the fake news and hate speech that prompted the attacks.

More on this: Fighting Fake News in India

Unfortunately, these restrictions serve only to problematise the sharing of false information, rather than to stop the spread completely. Unlike the western experience with inflammatory Facebook posts, WhatsApp messages cannot be effectively tracked or deleted due to their end-to-end encryption. Messages sent on the platform cannot be read by anyone other than the sender and recipient, ensuring that the only way malicious content can come to light is if a user reports the content themselves – or gets arrested.

But while WhatsApp’s encryption is certainly instrumental in the insidious spread of fake news in India, the messages themselves must come from somewhere – though considerations of from whom they may originate hardly paints an inspiring picture.

Both the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and opposition Congress Party vowed to use WhatsApp to full effect in this election. Given the importance of the platform to the BJP’s success in the 2014 election, they hardly had a choice.

Parties have used huge WhatsApp groups, some accounting for millions of Indian voters, to communicate policy and publicity, as well as spreading important news to the electorate. Considering, however, WhatsApp’s encryption technology, the tone, temper, or veracity of this information is essentially beholden only to those who send or receive it.

More on this: Social or anti-social media?

Such opacity in political dealings should be more than enough to raise the alarm. Statements made by BJP President Amit Shah in an address to the party’s social media officers last year, though, show there is little hope that the social media platform had been or will soon be used responsibly. In boasting of the BJP’s reach on WhatsApp, Shah proclaimed that, “real or fake”, the BJP could make any news go viral by virtue of its sheer social media influence.

Whether Shah’s comments were meant to deride or celebrate the sharing of fake news is by now irrelevant. The capacity of the platform to be used in a politically malicious fashion, as well as the incapacity of catching the culprits, has already eroded confidence in the world’s largest act of democracy.

Given the relatively low uptake of WhatsApp in Australia, one would be forgiven – though mistaken – for thinking that Australians are inoculated from this problem. While the use of encrypted messaging in the country is relatively low by comparison, it is highly likely that by as early as this year that will drastically change.

And in an ironic twist, it is Facebook’s shift towards greater user privacy that will facilitate this change. The company recently announced that, by 2020, it aimed not only to integrate the messaging services of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp – all Facebook-owned platforms – but that new unified service would feature end-to-end encryption.

More on this: NSC Podcast: fighting fake news

Given Facebook’s tendency to let its desire to self-regulate trump its own calls for transparency and regulation, Australians shouldn’t expect much better out of this new messenger platform than our Indian friends have experienced to date. While Mark Zuckerberg’s recent call for default encryption is a boon to personal privacy, without a fundamental revision to the way the platform functions, Australia may find its next election fraught by the same demons it has already battled on Facebook proper.

Further, recent election news from our own backyard suggests that, like the Indian case, we have enough domestic desire to match an encrypted platform’s malign opportunities. The recent political attacks promulgated on China’s WeChat show that political abuse of unregulated and poorly regulated messaging platforms is already alive and kicking in Australia. Perhaps even more sinister is the possibility of a Cronulla Riots text frenzy that is untraceable.

Australia must, therefore, take an active role in shaping and reshaping these platforms to ensure that the lessons to be learned in India do not have to be relearnt here. In the meantime, let’s hope that the social media gods allow both the world’s largest democracy and its luckiest democracy, to remain relatively unscathed.

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