Pay to forward – the way forward???

Social media these days is on a Meta trip! At least in India, for sure. News in social media is dominated by news about itself.

Day in day out one gets to see news of violence, lynching and even deaths, all in the light of fake WhatsApp messages, Facebook posts and Tweets which get forwarded in no time and whipping up a frenzy. Recently, a report said that WhatsApp based rumours have killed at least 22 people so far in India!

These days we also get to see warnings and threats from the ruling executive to these platforms asking them to mend their ways or face stiff action. This is particularly after the Cambridge Analytica expose.

In response, of late we also see news of these platforms showing increasing concern of the misuse and the resulting lynching, deaths and related violence. WhatsApp recently claimed that they were “horrified by the terrible acts of violence and wanted to respond quickly”.

In short, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and more importantly WhatsApp which are also in the business of disseminating news are in the news themselves, all for the wrong reasons! These platforms which were all conceived with a noble intention of “bringing the whole world together” have ended up being misused by the users and the owners alike. In using the platforms to manipulate public opinion, both the sides are culpable.

From the Government side, we have repeatedly seen threats of action. However one wonders, to what extent they can make the platforms accountable apart from slapping fines which some of the Governments have already done. Can they completely ban these platforms considering the fact that social media is completely intertwined with the lives of people today?

Look at WhatsApp. Apart from being a platform for exchanging messages at a personal level, it has become an important tool in business communication as well. Here, WhatsApp is used efficiently and widely, saving time and money while improving “good productivity” (Like good cholesterol and Bad cholesterol, there is a view that WhatsApp improves and on the other hand affects productivity!)  Even in the medical field, reports are exchanged over WhatsApp to save time and thereby probably lives!

Similarly, a medium like Twitter has become the foremost medium for direct communication by political parties and their leaders. For example, our Prime Minister Narendra Modi can afford not to engage with the mainstream media and still get his views across to the public through his tweets or other social media tools a thing which was unthinkable few years ago. Donald Trump could call of a summit dialogue through social media!

Ergo, it’s almost impossible for the Government to just shut these platforms down. And so the way forward is only to work with these platforms to contain the damage.

In response to the call for action, Facebook and WhatsApp announced a slew of measures recently and these also have been in the news. Post Cambridge Analytica expose, Mark Zuckerberg had said that they were committed not to interfere with the elections in India. They reportedly tied up with Boomliv.in a fact checking site in India to filter out fake messages being circulated through Facebook. However on WhatsApp, Facebook has professed that WhatsApp being an end to end encrypted medium, they cannot pore over messages and filter them.

What is certainly visible is a set of actions they have kicked off in India. Few days back newspapers were splashed with solus ads by WhatsApp educating about the use of the medium to tackle the spread of misinformation. Seemingly on cue, there was a rollout of an optional feature by which only the administrators are allowed to send messages in a group.

All of a sudden on my phone, I could see the label “forwarded” since last week on WhatsApp messages which were actually forwarded. Apparently this is another measure to differentiate if a message is forwarded or not. Frankly, I am not sure how this feature will help in preventing people to do a forward! Of course it helps in some of the groups in which I am there, which have banned forwards!

And more actions have followed since. Like empowerment to individuals to report unwanted messages from a user or block a person. On Friday, WhatsApp announced that it is testing a new feature by which the number of times a message can be forwarded will be limited to five! And also plans are afoot to remove the quick forward button next to media messages!

So far so good. The question is, are they good enough? In WhatsApp, the elephant in the room is the anonymity! As long as a sender can hide under the cloud of anonymity of a mobile number, it is difficult to trace the origins of a designed fake message which goes viral.

I must add here that political parties which are also part of the Government use the same tool to spread fake news when it’s convenient to them.

Vivek Wadhwa, himself a technology entrepreneur, in an interesting piece calls for putting the onus of finding a solution to get over this encryption on the tech platforms. As per him, Facebook must be made liable for deaths that have happened due fake messages spread through its WhatsApp platform. As per him, tech companies have always found a way of solving problems when profits are at stake. I tend to agree with him on this.

So, what could WhatsApp do? My simple and at the same time wild suggestion is make forwards or just group messaging chargeable! As long it’s free, we all have fun and indulge in forwarding without giving a second thought. We endlessly forward messages to the myriad groups we are associated, even sometimes not realising that the message was posted by someone else already!

When it is chargeable, we will think twice before hitting the send button. If it’s for a genuine cause or for a business purpose, we must not hesitate to pay! So truly if one wants to control the monster called WhatsApp, make it chargeable!

Will you pay to forward, going forward?

Postscript: As of now it’s still free. If you like the piece, don’t hesitate to hit the forward button when you see it on WhatsApp!

Image courtesy: Businessday Media online.

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