WhatsApp launched a hotline on Tuesday allowing Indians to flag rumours circulating ahead of the upcoming election, a major concern in a country where fake news has fuelled violence.
It comes a day after WhatsApp’s parent company Facebook removed hundreds of pages promoting India’s ruling and opposition parties for violating rules around spam and “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” online.
The spread of viral fake videos and messages on social media platforms has proved incendiary in India, where half a billion people are online but limited digital literacy has helped rumours spread like wildfire.
As hundreds of millions of Indians prepare to vote this month and next, experts say the biggest election in history will also prove an immense misinformation challenge.
Less than two weeks before voting starts, WhatsApp has launched a “tipline” in partnership with an Indian startup that it says will allow voters to submit uncertain or suspicious content for verification.
Pictures, video links and texts will be analysed and debunked if untrue in English and four regional languages, the company said in a statement.
“This combined effort by WhatsApp and industry organisations will help contribute to the safety of the elections, by giving people means to know if the information is verified and deter people from sharing rumors that have no basis in fact,” it said.
It follows a major purge of Facebook accounts on Monday by the social media giant, with hundreds of political pages spamming content supportive of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress movement taken down.
Facebook said nearly 700 of these were associated with Congress, whose leader Rahul Gandhi is challenging Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the election. The party said it was investigating the claims.
Another 15 pages shut down for spamming were promoting, among other themes, the BJP and the alleged misconduct of its opponents, Facebook said. One belonged to a news organisation, MyNation, owned by BJP lawmaker Rajeev Chandrasekhar, media reports said.
These pages were followed by 2.6 million users and “linked to individuals associated with an Indian IT firm, Silver Touch”, Facebook said.
The company based in Modi’s home state of Gujarat developed the premier’s personal mobile app and other government projects, Indian media reported.
The WhatsApp tipline follows other security measures taken by the firm in India, its largest global market with 200 million users.
WhatsApp restricted message forwarding in India last year and ran newspaper adverts to counter fake news after a spate of mob killings sparked by hoaxes spread on its messaging service.
In the lead up to the election, YouTube last month said it would start flagging dubious content in news-related videos in India. Its parent company Google is training Indian journalists in verification techniques and boosting stringency over election advertising.
Facebook has also said it was running its biggest ever election monitoring campaign, with adverts and announcements to help people spot misinformation. It is also working with Indian newsrooms to make false posts less visible.