WhatsApp Combats Fake News as India Preps for Elections

In India, where fake news on Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging platform has led to violence, company executives publicly described a plan to stop the flow of misinformation. India is WhatsApp’s largest market, and WhatsApp’s announcement comes as India prepares for its biggest election. Based on machine learning, said software engineer Matt Jones, the new system will use data of past activity to bar automated fake accounts and troublemakers at three stages: when registering, while messaging and when reported by others.

VentureBeat reports that, according to a company spokesperson, “overall, WhatsApp bans about 2 million accounts on its platform each month.”

Jones said the system, which can already identify and ban 20 percent of targeted activity at the time of registration, “looks at various factors, including the user’s IP address and the country of origination for phone numbers used to sign up for the service (and whether both are pointing to the same location), how old the account is, and whether that account started sending a lot of texts as soon as it was created.”

The machine learning captures 75 percent of the accounts banned each month, according to WhatsApp spokesperson Carl Woog.

According to Jones, WhatsApp has “identified various ways users abuse the platform, including through special software that allows individuals to run multiple instances of different WhatsApp accounts on the same computer … [as well as] special devices that support dozens of SIM cards.”

“As with any communications platform, sometimes people attempt to exploit our service,” said a WhatsApp spokesperson. “Regardless of the intent, automated and bulk messaging violates our terms of service, and one of our priorities is to prevent and stop this kind of abuse.”

More specifically, “the company has enforced a limit on the number of texts that can be forwarded to other users … [and] also run educational campaigns and advertisements on radio, television, and the web warning people to be cautious about what texts they share on the messaging platform.”

The company has teamed up with fact checkers Boom Live and Alt News, news consortium Ekta, and is working with law enforcement. It also brought on U.K. startup BuffaloGrid, maker of solar-powered mobile phone charging stations, “to extend the reach of its campaign in India,” and “inked deals with telecom operators” there.

The company spoke with “representatives of political parties in India to outline appropriate use of the platform.” A case study from Harvard Business Publishing reported that the current political party in power, BJP, “was able to reach a wider audience on WhatsApp than on Facebook, and at a fraction of the cost.”

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