WhatsApp
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WhatsApp announced that it's planning a new alert feature and other steps in reaction to complaints from India that fake news shared through its messaging service is responsible for lynchings and other violent acts in the country.

The new feature would highlight a message that's been forwarded by someone as opposed to one that was composed and sent directly, WhatsApp said in a letter sent to India's Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), as The Indian Express reported.

Facebook-owned WhatsApp promised the new feature in a response to a letter it received from MeitY in which the ministry complained that mob violence was set off by fake messages shared through the service.

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The spread of fake news has been a persistent problem for WhatsApp, its parent Facebook, and similar services--since sharing news via messaging apps and social media has become more prevalent and popular. With no clear way to verify whether information they see is true or false, many users on these sites assume the facts are real and react, or overreact, accordingly.

In the case of India, five men were lynched on Sunday by a mob who allegedly were spurred on by rumors of child molestation spread via WhatsApp, according to BBC News. Twelve people have been arrested for the murders. At least 12 prior deaths in India have been linked to WhatsApp rumors over the past few months, the BBC said. Those incidents included a man wandering aimlessly who was beaten to death by a mob, a woman lynched for giving sweets to children, and a man lynched for speaking Hindi rather than the local language.

In its letter to WhatsApps, the ministry said that the government "conveyed in no uncertain terms that WhatsApp must take immediate action to end this menace and ensure that their platform is not used for such malafide activities," The Indian Express reported.

"Like the Government of India, we're horrified by these terrible acts of violence and wanted to respond quickly to the very important issues you have raised," WhatsApp said in response. "We believe this is a challenge that requires government, civil society, and technology companies to work together."

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Beyond testing the new feature to distinguish direct messages from those that are forwarded, WhatsApp said that it's made certain changes to group chats to "prevent the spread of unwanted information."

WhatsApp recently updated its group messaging feature to give admins the power to be the only ones who can send messages to the entire group. The company also touted a new feature that stops people from adding back those individuals who already left a group.

Further, WhatsApp said it will publish posts in India to help users better spot fake news and hoaxes and that it's working with a fact-checking company called Boom Live, which has "published numerous important reports on the source of the rumors."

We reached out to WhatsApp and the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology for comment, and will update the story if we receive a response.

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Takeaways

  1. WhatsApp is planning a new feature to alert users to forwarded messages as a way to limit the spread and influence of fake news.
  2. WhatsApp has other measures in place or in the planning stage in response to violence in India supposedly triggered by fake news shared through the app.

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Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books - "Windows 8 Five Minutes at a Time" and "Teach Yourself VISUALLY LinkedIn."