Media & Entertainment

WhatsApp adds a tip-line for gathering fakes ahead of India’s elections

Comment

Update: Proto, the startup working with WhatsApp on this election disinformation initiative (aka Project Checkpoint) has released an FAQ which makes it clear the effort is, first and foremost, a data-gathering exercise.

It writes that the tipline has been set up “only as a means to collect information that is otherwise inaccessible given the nature of private messaging”. So, as we suggested earlier, it’s an attempt to get a snapshot of stuff circulating invisibly on WhatsApp’s end-to-end encrypted platform.

“Checkpoint’s research is using a WhatsApp tipline to crowdsource data that would otherwise not be accessible,” confirms Proto.

Its FAQ also emphasizes that the tipline is not intended to act as a fully fledged fact-checking service, as local reports had suggested earlier.

“The Checkpoint tipline is primarily used to gather data for research, and is not a helpline that will be able to provide a response to every user,” it warns. “The information provided by users helps us understand potential misinformation in a particular message, and when possible, we will send back a message to users. We would like to verify every rumor but we know that will not be possible given the diversity of information we will receive and the limitations of any verification research.”

Any verifications that are provided “will not be instant”, and may take up to 24 hours to receive, it adds.

“Over the next four months, we expect to aggregate these signals at scale, to better understand how misinformation during large events of public interest in India — such as the elections — spreads across languages, regions, even issues. Our dataset, findings and analyses will be compiled into a first of its kind report for India that will be shared with WhatsApp.”

Original story follows below… 

Facebook-owned messaging platform WhatsApp has launched a fact-checking tipline for users in India ahead of elections in the country.

The fact-checking service consists of a phone number (+91-9643-000-888) where users can send dubious messages if they think they might not be true or otherwise want them verified.

The messaging giant is working with a local media skilling startup, Proto, to run the fact-checking service — in conjunction with digital strategy consultancy Dig Deeper Media and San Francisco-based Meedan, which builds tools for journalists, to provide the platform for verifying submitted content, per TNW.

We’ve reached out to Proto and WhatsApp with questions.

The Economic Times of India reports that the startup intends to use the submitted messages to build a database to help study misinformation during elections for a research project commissioned and supported by WhatsApp.

“The goal of this project is to study the misinformation phenomenon at scale. As more data flows in, we will be able to identify the most susceptible or affected issues, locations, languages, regions, and more,” said Proto’s co-founders Ritvvij Parrikh and Nasr ul Hadi in a statement quoted by Reuters.

WhatsApp also told the news agency: “The challenge of viral misinformation requires more collaborative efforts and cannot be solved by any one organisation alone.”

According to local press reports, suspicious messages can be shared to the WhatsApp tipline in four regional languages, with the fact-checking service covering videos and pictures, as well as text. The submitter is also to confirm they want a fact-check and, on doing so, will get a subsequent response indicating if the shared message is classified as true, false, misleading, disputed or out of scope.

Other related information may also be provided, the Economic Times reports.

WhatsApp has faced major issues with fakes being spread on its end-to-end encrypted platform — a robust security technology that makes the presence of bogus and/or maliciously misleading content harder to spot and harder to manage since the platform itself does not have access to it.

The spread of fakes has become a huge problem for social media platforms generally. One that’s arguably most acute in markets where literacy (and digital literacy) rates can vary substantially. And in India WhatsApp fakes have led to some truly tragic outcomes — with multiple reports in recent years detailing how fast-spreading digital rumors sparked or fueled mob violence that’s led to death and injury.

India’s general election, which is due to take place in several phases starting later this month until mid next, presents a more clearly defined threat — with the risk of a democratic process and outcome being manipulated by weaponized political disinformation.

WhatsApp’s platform is squarely in the frame, given the app’s popularity in India.

It has also been accused of fueling damaging political fakes during elections in Brazil last year, with Reuters reporting that the platform was flooded with falsehoods and conspiracy theories.

An outsized presence on social media appears to have aided the election of right-winger Jair Bolsonaro. While the left-wing candidate he beat in a presidential run-off later claimed businessmen backing Bolsonaro paid to flood WhatsApp with misleading propaganda.

In India, local press reports that politicians across the spectrum are being accused of seeking to manipulate the forthcoming elections by seeding fakes on the popular encrypted messaging platform.

It’s clear that WhatsApp offers a conduit for spreading unregulated and unaccountable propaganda at scale with even limited resources. So whether a tipline can offer a robust check against weaponized political disinformation very much remains to be seen.

There certainly look to be limitations to this approach. Though it could also be developed and enhanced — such as if it gets more fully baked into the platform.

For now it looks like WhatsApp is testing the water and trying to gather more data to shape a more robust response.

The most obvious issue with the tipline is it requires a message recipient to request a check — an active step that means the person must know about the fact-check service, have the number available in their contacts and trust the judgment of those running it.

Many WhatsApp users will fall outside those opt-in bounds.

It also doesn’t take much effort to imagine purveyors of malicious rumors spreading fresh fakes claiming the fact-checks/checkers are biased or manipulated to try to turn WhatsApp users against it.

This is likely why local grassroots political organizations are also being encouraged to submit any rumors they see circulating across the different regions during the election period. And why WhatsApp is talking about the need for collective action to combat the disinformation problem.

It will certainly need engagement across the political spectrum to counter any bias charges and plug gaps resulting from limited participation by WhatsApp users themselves.

How information on debunked fakes can be credibly and widely fed back to Indian voters in a way that broadly reaches the electorate is what’s really key though.

There’s no suggestion, here and now, that’s going to happen via WhatsApp itself — only those who request a check are set to get a response.

Although that could change in the future. But, equally, the company may be wary of being seen to accept a role in centralized distribution of (even fake) political propaganda. That way more accusations of bias likely lie.

In recent years Facebook has taken out adverts in traditional India media to warn about fakes. It has also experimented with other tactics to try to combat damaging WhatsApp rumors — such as using actors to role-play fakes in public to warn against false messages.

So the company looks to be hoping to develop a multi-stakeholder, multi-format information network off of its own platform to help get the message out about fakes spreading on WhatsApp.

Albeit, that’s clearly going to take time and effort. It’s also still not clear whether it will be effective versus an app that’s always on hand and capable of feeding in fresh fakes. 

The tipline, inevitably, looks slow and painstaking beside the wildfire spread of digital fakes. And it’s not clear how much of a check on spread and amplification it can offer in this form.

Certainly initially — given the fact-checking process itself necessarily takes time.

While a startup, even one that’s being actively supported by WhatsApp — Proto confirmed to us that WhatsApp has provided funding to support the technology behind the tipline — is unlikely to have the resources to speedily fact-check the volume of fakes that will be distributed across such a large market, fueled by election interests.

Yet timely intervention is critical to prevent fakes going viral.

So, again, this initiative looks unlikely to stop the majority of bogus WhatsApp messages from being swallowed and shared. But the data set derived from the research project that underpins the tipline may help the company fashion a more responsive and proactive approach to contextualizing and debunking malicious rumors in the future.

Proto says it plans to submit its learnings to the International Center for Journalists to help other organizations learn from its efforts.

The Economic Times also quotes Fergus Bell, founder and CEO of Dig Deeper Media, suggesting the research will help create “global benchmarks” for those wishing to tackle misinformation in their own markets.

In the meantime, though, the votes go on.

This report was updated with comment and additional information from Proto

More TechCrunch

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

A new crop of early-stage startups — along with some recent VC investments — illustrates a niche emerging in the autonomous vehicle technology sector. Unlike the companies bringing robotaxis to…

VCs and the military are fueling self-driving startups that don’t need roads

When the founders of Sagetap, Sahil Khanna and Kevin Hughes, started working at early-stage enterprise software startups, they were surprised to find that the companies they worked at were trying…

Deal Dive: Sagetap looks to bring enterprise software sales into the 21st century

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

1 day ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

1 day ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

Strava announced a slew of features, including AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, a new ‘family’ subscription plan, dark mode and more.

Strava taps AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, unveils ‘family’ plan, dark mode and more

We all fall down sometimes. Astronauts are no exception. You need to be in peak physical condition for space travel, but bulky space suits and lower gravity levels can be…

Astronauts fall over. Robotic limbs can help them back up.

Microsoft will launch its custom Cobalt 100 chips to customers as a public preview at its Build conference next week, TechCrunch has learned. In an analyst briefing ahead of Build,…

Microsoft’s custom Cobalt chips will come to Azure next week

What a wild week for transportation news! It was a smorgasbord of news that seemed to touch every sector and theme in transportation.

Tesla keeps cutting jobs and the feds probe Waymo

Sony Music Group has sent letters to more than 700 tech companies and music streaming services to warn them not to use its music to train AI without explicit permission.…

Sony Music warns tech companies over ‘unauthorized’ use of its content to train AI