New Delhi: WhatsApp will allow users to send frequently forwarded messages to only one chat at a time as part of efforts to curb spreading of misinformation amid the coronavirus pandemic.

This limit will be in place once a message has been previously forwarded five times or more.

The latest move comes as countries, including India, are initiating measures to tackle the spread of rumours, fake news and misinformation on social media platforms.

"We are now introducing a limit so that these messages can only be forwarded to one chat at a time...we've seen a significant increase in the amount of forwarding which users have told us can feel overwhelming and can contribute to the spread of misinformation," the Facebook-owned WhatsApp said in its blog on Tuesday.

Last year, WhatsApp launched the 'forward' label with double arrows to indicate that the message did not originate from a close contact. It also limited message 'forwards' to five chats at a time.

Platforms like WhatsApp are being increasingly used by people amid lockdowns and social distancing measures to prevent the spreading of coronavirus infections.

The company said it believes it is important to slow the spread of these messages to keep WhatsApp a place for personal conversation.

The company, which has over 400 million users in India, said its previous steps of setting limits on forwarded messages to constrain virality had led to a 25 per cent decrease in message forwards globally at a time.

With billions of people unable to see their friends and family in person due to COVID-19, people are relying on WhatsApp more than ever to communicate, WhatsApp stated.

"People are talking to doctors, teachers, and isolated loved ones via WhatsApp during this crisis. That's why all your messages and calls on WhatsApp are end-to-end encrypted by default to give you a secure place for your most personal conversations," it added.

WhatsApp said that in addition, it is also engaging directly with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and governments, including the World Health Organization and over 20 national health ministries, to help connect people with accurate information.

"Together, these trusted authorities have sent hundreds of millions of messages directly to people requesting information and advice," it added.

WhatsApp is also testing a feature that would display a small magnifying glass next to any frequently forwarded messages.

Users will then be able to click that and be taken to a web search for the message, with the intention of letting them find articles that may debunk the message or shed further light on any claims found within it -- and not forward them on if they find the message is not true.

In mid-March, even as many states had begun imposing curbs and movement restrictions to fight the spread of coronavirus pandemic, WhatsApp had rolled out 'Coronavirus Information Hub' to provide simple, actionable guidance for health workers, educators, community leaders, non-profit entities, local governments and local businesses that rely on WhatsApp to communicate.

Indian government's dedicated WhatsApp chatbot MyGov Corona Helpdesk, which aims to provide timely updates and help citizens clear their queries on COVID-19, has already garnered over 2 crore users.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24 announced a complete lockdown of the entire country for 21 days in an unprecedented move to halt the spread of coronavirus, shortly after which the Centre said road, rail and air services will remain suspended during this period.

As on early Tuesday, the pandemic claimed 114 lives in the country and the number of cases increased to 4,421 in India.

In the past, WhatsApp has faced flak from the government after a series of mob-lynching incidents, triggered by rumours circulating on WhatsApp, claimed lives.

Under pressure to stop rumours and fake news, WhatsApp had then restricted forwarding messages to five chats at once as well as removed the quick forward button for media messages in India. This feature was later extended globally.

WhatsApp, as part of its efforts, has been running campaigns, offering tips to users on how to spot misinformation.

However, WhatsApp has so far, resisted the government's demand for identifying message originators, arguing that such a move would undermine the end-to-end encryption and the private nature of the platform, creating potential for serious misuse.

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This report was first published in thewire.in and has been posted here without any alterations or editing. To read the original report, CLICK HERE

New Delhi: Over 650 members of civil society have demanded a stop to the ‘vendetta politics’ against Harsh Mander and other activists, adding that the Centre has been “misusing” regulatory institutions and laws like the Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act (FCRA) to harass civil society institutions.

The statement comes after a case was registered under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act over alleged violations by two shelter homes in South Delhi which were established by the Centre for Equity Studies (CES), an NGO that Mander is associated with.

In the statement, the signatories said that the Centre’s targeting of Mander, a former IAS officer, and the CES is a continuation of the “politics of vendetta” and is symptomatic of how “those who dissent are being dealt with in India today”.

“The egregious attacks on the Centre for Equity Studies ranging from wild accusations of sexual misconduct in two of the children’s homes run by the organisation to the fishing expedition being undertaken by the Economic Offences Wing of Delhi Police are but two examples of the recent attacks on Harsh Mander and the institutions associated with him,” the statement says.

Condemning “the attacks on Harsh Mander and the Centre for Equity Studies”, the signatories demanded an end to “vendetta politics” and that regulatory institutions and laws should not be “misused” to harass civil society institutions. “Allow democratic spaces for civil society to operate and give due recognition of their role in nation-building,” the added.

The full statement, along with the list of signatories, has been reproduced below.

Civil Society statement for Harsh Mander/Centre for Equity Studies

Stop vendetta politics against civil society and persecution of citizens associated with civil society

One of the most disturbing trends in India in the recent years, along with the decline in Constitutional values and shrinking space for civil society, is the demonisation and persecution of activists and organisations. The active hounding of Harsh Mander, a former bureaucrat and one of the most respected names in civil society, and the institutions he is associated with like the Centre for Equity Studies (CES) is the most recent example of the vendetta politics of the government.

An officer of the Indian Administrative Service, Harsh Mander quit the civil service in 2002 in the wake of the Gujarat riots and has since then been a part of significant civil society initiatives. He has served as the head of ActionAid India, co-founder of the Centre for Equity Studies, co-founder of Karwan-e-Mohabbat – an initiative to promote love and communal harmony, and was member of the National Advisory Council chaired by the Chairperson of the UPA. His close association with people’s movements including the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI) amongst others, gave him a unique perspective on social changes processes that is rare amongst social activists. Throughout his career, Harsh Mander’s central concerns have been the most marginalised people in India – the urban homeless, leprosy patients, Dalits and Muslims, and children living on the streets.

It is this aspect of his work that encapsulated the activities of the Centre for Equity Studies since it was founded more than two decades ago. Over the years, CES has emerged as one of the leading pro-poor policy institutions, bridging grassroots actions with constructive engagement on social policy. Till 2014, CES ran a network of 51 children’s homes across the country covering hundreds of children and was responsible for the Central Government’s guidelines on the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan for street children. CES brings out the annual India Exclusion Report which has emerged as one of the most authoritative report on social exclusion covering the most marginalised communities in the country. Between 2004 and 2014, CES was part of many of the processes for landmark rights-based legislations like the National Food Security Act and the Right to Information Act.

That the current regime has now chosen to target a distinguished civil society organisation like CES in the continuing politics of vendetta to silence Harsh Mander is symptomatic of how those who dissent are being dealt with in India today. The egregious attacks on the Centre for Equity Studies ranging from wild accusations of sexual misconduct in two of the children’s homes run by the organisation to the fishing expedition being undertaken by the Economics Offences Wing of Delhi Police are but two examples of the recent attacks on Harsh Mander and the institutions associated with him.

As civil society leaders representing a very wide range of constituencies and work across the country, we unequivocally condemn the attacks on Harsh Mander and the Centre for Equity Studies and demand:

  1. An end to vendetta politics towards Harsh Mander and the Centre for Equity Studies
  2. Stop misusing regulatory institutions and laws like the FCRA to harass Civil Society institutions
  3. Allow democratic spaces for civil society to operate and give due recognition of their role in nation building