Lurking dangers of WhatsApp

ByShahmir Kazi

works in the private sector with interest in socio-political affairs


August 7, 2022

Shahmir Kazi is worried about the inherent risks associated with the premier connecting service

WhatsApp is a familiar phenomenon in Pakistan and it is now widely used. The increased usage of this devise in Pakistan is not devoid of controversies and many people complain about the disruptive tendencies inherent in this system. There are many quarters in Pakistan that are putting pressure to bring some kind of control-mechanism in order to keep a tab on this free-for-all communication module. There is hardly any doubt that Facebook-owned WhatsApp is the formidable global communication device that has added facility to human urge to stay in touch. Its use quickly picked up pace and it became a global phenomenon unheard of in human history. It is basically a freeware and cross-platform messaging and Voice over IP service that has proven its ability as one of the most efficient systems of interconnection. Part of the application (Apps) regime WhatsApp allows the sending of text messages and voice calls, as well as video calls, images and other media and documents globally and within a jiffy.

WhatsApp is managed through a mobile phone device as well as from desktop computers and it requires a standard cellular mobile number but needs a Wi-Fi connection to carry messages forward. This is the crucial difference between it as Short Messaging Service (SMS) but the application of WhatsApp is far useful than SMS. When this application started, the users could only communicate with other users individually or in groups of individual users, but in September 2017 WhatsApp announced a forthcoming business platform which will enable companies to provide customer service to users at scale that will add tremendous value to its usage. The rise of WhatsApp though has provided tremendous facility to its users but it also brought in its wake vast chances of spread of misinformation.

The first instance of the reported misuse of this facility came to fore when the American political apparatus blamed misinformation spread through it that exerted purportedly negative impact on the US presidential election in 2016. It is also reported that in other countries, falsities are just as likely to spread on private messaging services, sometimes with deadly consequences. In this context it was mentioned that at least two dozen people were lynched in India due to rumours spread through WhatsApp that they were involved in kidnapping children. The problem that is considered imperative is that with 1.5 billion users, information can go viral in minutes as individuals forward messages along to their friends or groups, without any way to determine its origin. The worry is that misleading stories, memes and message can spread unchecked causing extreme harm at times. It is also reported that in many countries WhatsApp platform has been used as main source of disinformation including Brazil, India, Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Mexico.

The problem is directly related to the fact that the closed nature of messaging services complicates the already difficult task of fighting rumours and stamping out lies. Unlike the largely open forums of Facebook and Twitter, WhatsApp hosts private chats among groups of friends. It is encrypted, or mathematically scrambled, so that no one, not even the service’s employees, can read the content of messages that were not intended for them. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that this closed platform can be more dangerous because the information is spreading in these intimate groups of friends and family and these people are widely trusted. WhatsApp’s encryption makes it impossible for WhatsApp’s security staff to read messages unless a user specifically reports them as problematic and because WhatsApp lets people sign up with just a phone number, unlike Facebook, WhatsApp does not require users to have an email address or reveal their real name, engineers have limited visibility into users’ friends or into what they have posted in the past, cutting them off from key clues to malicious behaviour.

Conversations on these platforms are less visible to outsiders particularly fact-checkers who often debunk misinformation. Many countries have set-up news and fact-checking organisations with establishing WhatsApp hotlines where people can forward along questionable content to be debunked. The organisations then return the correct story to the person who sent it and hope that person shares it with their groups. However, the combination of an inexperienced and digitally illiterate user base, coupled with WhatsApp’s encryption, has proved to be toxic, leading to fear, misunderstanding and, in some cases, violence. The misuse of WhatsApp mirrors the way in which other tech tools have been weaponised in recent years, in particular around misinformation. The main issue is that the company’s roots are about getting as little information about users as possible, and WhatsApp’s founders, Brian Acton and Jan Koum, were libertarians who believed deeply in privacy. After Facebook acquired WhatsApp for $19 billion in 2014, the messaging company operated separately from its parent and was divorced from Facebook’s efforts to combat misinformation, such as hiring thousands of moderators and building artificial-intelligence software to spot malicious posts. In this context, it is mentioned that independence allowed problems to fester, undermining Facebook’s corporate mission to promote democracy around the world. TW


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