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WhatsApp Launches Fact-Checking Research Project As BJP & Congress Scout Electoral Battlefield

WhatsApp Launches Fact-Checking Research Project As BJP & Congress Scout Electoral Battlefield

Anirudh VK

Facebook is slowly beginning to crack down on underhanded tactics used by Indian politicians to promote themselves using their platforms. This has taken the form of both outright banning and more subtle changes that will impact the state of the political scene in the country. Moreover, the fight against misinformation continues as the company begins to fight back against the misuse of their services.

After banning a spate of pages associated with Congress and BJP on Facebook, the company has now taken it into its own hands to begin researching the spread of misinformation over WhatsApp. This could help to tackle the lack of trust that many Indian users have against WhatsApp.

The initialisation of Checkpoint Tipline is indicative of a larger movement in the fight against misinformation in a rapidly developing Internet nation. Read on to see how this is one of the biggest moves by WhatsApp towards combating the rise of misinformation.

What Is Checkpoint Tipline

The Tipline is a WhatsApp contact at the number +919643000888 which is operated by a company known as Proto. Information on this company is scarce, with available facts stating that the company is headquartered in Delhi. The company’s founder is also a part of the International Center For Journalists, an organization dedicated to fighting the spread of misinformation.

The number exists as a user on WhatsApp to which certain new stories can be forwarded to, followed by the number ‘1’. This will then send the stories to Proto, who then check the story and classify them into one of 5 categories; true, false, misleading, disputed or out of scope. The company is working in conjunction with a digital strategy consultancy known as Dig Deeper Media, and a company called Meedan that builds tools for journalists engaging in fact-checking.

All three organizations are focused on an effort to combat misinformation, which Facebook says is not something that can be done alone. Towards this end, Proto has also encouraged multiple grass-roots organizations and citizen journalist outlets to submit rumours that are circulating on the platform.

The application offers fact-checking services in five languages, including English, Hindi, Telugu, Bengali and Malayalam. Moreover, it can also parse information in the form of pictures, video link, and text. It is intended as a project to study the spread of misinformation and not a helpline.

This is an example of the increasing awareness of companies and their responsibility towards how their application is used. The research will offer a deeper look into how to combat fake news.

Snuffing WhatsApp Dreams Of Election Campaign

It is no coincidence that this occurring ahead of the elections. Last year, it was found that political parties in Brazil were utilising WhatsApp to misinform large swathes of individuals, which eventually resulted in the election of the candidate who was able to use the application to his benefit. This also occurred in a country with a similar setting to India’s, with a large amount of the population utilising the app for their daily news.

To prevent something similar from occurring in India, WhatsApp seems to have instituted this project. Political parties are known to use social media to promote their propaganda, as seen by the banning of over 700 pages and individuals who are said to have ties to Congress on Facebook. Moreover, reports have also emerged that WhatsApp is the weapon of choice for parties this year.

This was seen in 2017 in Karnataka, where the BJP expected a difficult assembly election. To combat this, they created over 5,000 WhatsApp groups segregated on the basis of age, work status, gender, and whether the individual was a senior citizen or not. An account by a data analyst who also formerly worked with the BJP was collated into a book and published just recently. He has mentioned the methodological procedures used to push individuals into groups based on publicly available data from electoral rolls.

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The Neverending Propaganda Machine

According to a report by ET, there are over 87,000 full WhatsApp groups being used by political parties to increase their reach to the rural areas of India. This is done for two reasons.

Primarily, this is where the mass of individuals live in India. Even as cities and towns provide valuable vote banks for parties in other ways, rural areas are prone to swaying from side to side when it comes to political affiliation. Capitalizing on them is one of the most important ways to increase one’s chances of winning.

Secondly, due to the rise of cheap Internet, WhatsApp has become the only source of ‘reliable’ news in terms of forwards. In reality, they are added into WhatsApp groups and fed an endless stream of propaganda in the form of memes, forwards and fake news.

Reports have also shown accounts of content created on other platforms making their way onto WhatsApp. Parties are able to reach large numbers of individuals using the platform owing to 256 individuals being available on every group.

The ease of access to the news checker is a good move, but users need an easier way to access this feature. Something that is built into the chats themselves will work without having to break the encryption that makes the app secure. However, it is left to see what kind of impact it has on the endless coffers of individuals financing election manipulation efforts.

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