India's WhatsApp murders - is this a technology or a human problem?

People are dying in India thanks to intentional disinformation being spread over — principally — Facebook's WhatsApp. This needs to be addressed - but how?

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

There's a troubling long read about WhatsApp in India up on BuzzFeed News:

Lately, however, WhatsApp has been getting Indians killed. In June, rumors about child kidnappers shared on the service inspired a mob of hundreds to lynch a 29-year-old man and his friend who were passing through a village in Karbi Anglong, a district in the eastern part of the country. In July, two weeks after the Rainpada incident, hundreds of people hurled stones at an IT worker who was visiting the South Indian village of Murki, killing him. Since May, there have been at least 16 lynchings leading to 29 deaths in India where public officials say mobs were incited by misinformation on WhatsApp.

For most of this year, we've been debating the impact of social media allowing misinformation to spread fast. But there's a palpable distinction between subverting political systems and actually inciting violence against groups of people. And the misinformation in India has clearly crossed that line.

But that relentless focus on private, easy sharing did not account for second- and even third-order effects at scale: What happens when there are more than a billion people using the service? What happens when some of those people have a limited understanding of the technology they’re using, of the perfidy of the broader internet? And what happens when an incitement to violence can be shared instantly with hundreds of people who can each share it with hundreds more?

Again, that word "scale". It may well be that the single, defining feature of modern social media is that word. When very large numbers of people are connected together by a system, then information can move across that system at increasing speed. The internet was fundamentally designed to be a decentralised, distributed system, but the big winners of the internet age have tended to be companies that reverse that decentralisation: Google with search, Facebook with social platforms of various sorts, and even services like Wikipedia.

Descaling the Internet

Is there any way of offering both scale and ease of use to only provide deliver effects, not negative ones? Probably not. So, then, do we need to think of approaches that maintain ease of use while breaking scale? Can we afford to have pan-global communications systems in the hands of a tiny handful of commercial businesses who fail to take responsibility when their systems are part of the underlying mechanism?

If we take that approach, then we're going to need some very delicate legislation that both curbs the worst excesses of the existing platforms, without stifling innovation that would allow competitors to rise. I'm not convinced that many governments are up to that right now.

Or do we need to accept that the technology is not going back in the box, and work instead on giving people the digital literacy and skepticism needed to make a human firewall against the rapid spread of these messages? Perhaps we'd go some way further towards that goal by focusing on the people involved, rather than the technology. After all, people created the messages and people decided to act on them. Hence, people should face clear and unambiguous punishment for their actions. Even if you just concentrate on those who act on the messages, rather than those who spread them, you might well help create an environment where people think a little harder before acting.

Maybe we need to start seeing this as a people problem, not a technology one.

[Previously on this]

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.