The Technology 202: WhatsApp’s new tip line in India is a testing ground for fighting fake news

WhatsApp’s new tip line for misinformation in India could be a preview for how its owner, Facebook, tries to tackle fake news as it reorients its business toward encrypted messaging.

A man poses with a smartphone in front of displayed Whatsapp logo in this illustration September 14, 2017. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/File Photo

The tip line, which allows people to forward suspect messages to an automated account, is among the first public signs Facebook is developing new misinformation-busting techniques after its promise to encrypt messages across its platforms raised concerns about its ability to police harmful content.

The company’s move to test this new strategy on WhatsApp – which is already built on encryption so strong the company cannot see the contents of its messages – reveals how the company is looking outside its usual playbook, which largely relies on algorithms and human moderators to screen news on open forums such as Facebook News Feed and Instagram.

“I think it’s going to be an experiment to see how well it works here,” said Ashkan Soltani, former Federal Trade Commission chief technology officer. “They have to do something.”

But experts are skeptical that a tip line will be effective. They raise concerns about the company’s ability to respond to reports it receives at a mass scale – and whether people will even report fake news forwarded to them.

“I worry a little bit about it being more of a gimmick than being an effective intervention,” said Matthew Baum, a professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Most messages on WhatsApp come directly from people users know or groups who have a more intimate ties than those they might be connected with on a broader social network service such as Facebook or Twitter. “It’s a harder nut to crack,” Baum said.

Still, it could be an interesting microcosm for testing such a strategy – especially as misinformation is spreading virally on the messaging app ahead of India’s elections later this month.

WhatsApp partnered with the India-based start-up Proto to create the system, in which an automated account will let people know whether their flagged message is verified, not verified, or “out of scope.”

The reports could also provide useful data that inform the company’s understanding of the types of falsehoods that are proliferating.

“The goal of this project is to study the misinformation phenomenon at scale – natively in WhatsApp. As more data flows in, we will be able to identify the most susceptible or affected issues, locations, languages, regions, and more,” Proto’s founders Ritvvij Parrikh and Nasr ul Hadi said in a statement. Proto plans to share its finding with the International Center for Journalists to help other organizations learn from this project.

However, with more than 200 million people in India using WhatsApp, it remains to be seen how quickly and effectively the tip line will be able to respond to flagged misinformation. The Wall Street Journal’s Newley Purnell submitted several messages to the tip line yesterday as it launched. After 20 hours, he had not received a response:

Soltani compared this tip line technique to the way offices asked employees to forward every spam message to their IT guy in the early 2000s. Soltani said it didn’t work then, and he’s skeptical it can work on a much larger scale in India.

Facebook, Soltani says, is “trying everything” as it races to fight misinformation during its shift to encryption.

Chief executive Mark Zuckerberg admits quelling misinformation on encrypted messages is trickier than on other platforms – but has pledged to find a way. The company unveiled a feature that would limit message forwarding to only five times on WhatsApp to address similar concerns.

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