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Zimbabwe not alone in fight against misinformation

02 Feb 2019 at 05:48hrs | Views
Recent moves by the Facebook–owned WhatsApp messaging company to limit users to forwarding a message only five times, in an attempt to cut down on the spread of misinformation, demonstrates the global nature of how countries are grappling with the peddling of fake news.

This move, shows that Zimbabwe is not alone in the fight against misinformation and the spread of fake news, which has in most parts of the world led to violence, lynching, killings, looting and damage to property running into thousands of dollars.

Misinformation can be very difficult to correct and may have lasting effects even after it is discredited. This has forced media and communication regulatory authorities worldwide and messaging companies to take rigorous steps to review the operations of social media messaging applications.

WhatsApp took immediate action to prevent the social media site from being misused to spread rumours and irresponsible statements like those blamed for deadly mob attacks which led to the death of more than 30 people in India last year.

The people were killed in a number of rural villages in many Indian states. They were said to be victims who were innocent people accused in the viral messages of belonging to gangs trying to abduct children. This has led to sharp criticism of the Facebook-owned messaging service globally for what has come to be known as "WhatsApp Killings."

WhatsApp is now taking heed of the concerns raised by various governments across the world in the fight against misinformation. Internet experts say WhatsApp presents different challenges than misinformation on Facebook, because of the different ways the networks operate. Unlike Facebook, they say, much of WhatsApp's messaging and sharing is done through private, encrypted channels, limiting moderators' ability to see what is happening and intervene.

Because of rising concerns of the spread of false information, WhatsApp users will be blocked from forwarding messages to more than five individuals or groups under new rules the messaging service is rolling out worldwide to fight the spread of misinformation. The company's vice president for policy and communications, Victoria Grand was quoted as saying.

The five-recipient limit was initially put in place in India last July, while a larger limit, of 20 recipients, was put in place globally.

The Facebook-owned messaging company said at the time the limits would "help keep WhatsApp the way it was designed to be: a private messaging app." "We settled on five because we believe this is a reasonable number to reach close friends while helping prevent abuse," Carl Woog, the head of communications at WhatsApp, told the Guardian recently.

Zimbabwe shut down social media access on the second day of violent protests, January 15, to prevent the social media from being misused to spread rumours and irresponsible statements that were leading to more violence, looting, destruction of property and the spread of hate messages. During that period, the Government also closed off access to the Internet as a whole between January 15 and January 17, and briefly on January 18. Service was later restored.

During this period, the peddling of violent scenes, images, hate messages and mockery of the Government was rampant, fomenting mistrust between the Government and the masses. Misinformation has long-term implications. It may continue to influence beliefs and attitudes even after being debunked. Social responsibility and dialogue then becomes key in managing misinformation, mistrust and hate.

The rise of fake news highlights the need for a new system of safeguards — fact checking, control and the striking of a good balance between the right to access credible information and freedom to communicate. Many people are now vulnerable to manipulations by malicious actors on the internet platform. More often than not, malicious actors are motivated to negatively portray someone as revenge.

Reasons are diverse. They could be failed love affair, family disputes, business rivalries, political, religious and community disputes. Internet critics have blamed WhatsApp's message-forwarding mechanics for helping the spread of fake news in part because of the way the app displays forwarded messages.

"A text message that has been forwarded to a new recipient is marked as forwarded in light grey text, but otherwise appears indistinguishable from an original message sent by a contact. This design strips away the identity of the sender and allows messages to spread virally with little accountability," said a critic online.

Others had called on Facebook, which bought WhatsApp for $18bn in 2014, to limit forwarding globally. In Brazil, Nigeria and recently in the DRC, in the run-up to these countries' elections, WhatsApp-powered misinformation was widely thought to be a huge tool that could negatively influence the outcome of poll results and cause political destabilisation.

Many governments across the world are increasingly introducing a raft of policies to control WhatsApp messaging. They want Facebook and other messaging services to restrict broadcasts so that a single user cannot text hundreds of others at once, and limit the size of new groups during the electoral periods.

Most countries are also concerned with the sending abusive and explicit messages, paedophilia, crime, drugs and a host of other social problems peddled via the internet. Gullible people are forced to consume fake messages that are spammed by malicious actors.

Inadvertently, people then become a tool in the hands of unscrupulous elements who create such fake messages. WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned encrypted messaging service are the main carriers of fake news and viral hoaxes in Zimbabwe and most other countries.

Messages circulating in WhatsApp groups in the country range from jaunty good morning messages and all kinds of greetings to gossip, jokes, p-rnography and lots of fake news, hoaxes and rumours. When it comes to fake news and hoaxes, people can believe messages forwarded by friends and relatives on WhatsApp at face value.

Source - the herald
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