In the Malayalam movie Sudani from Nigeria (2018) directed by Zakariya-Muhsin Parari team, there is a scene in which the hero tells his friend at the end of the day –‘Ok. We will meet in WhatsApp’.
The major feature of the mobile application called WhatsApp is that it has made human networking more spaceless by making get-togethers no longer requiring physical proximity. The app’s attraction is that the user can simultaneously be part of different groups of different natures. This facilitates the user regulating human interactions in different areas such as relatives, old friends, business groups and political workers using the cellphone in his hands. This application has greatly helped to ease the strenuous processes of organizing. What aided the company in making a large section of the world population their consumers is the ease of use and the app’s capability to organise on a large scale. Those ranging from giant corporate establishments to political parties and school PTA committees are all effectively making use of this application. Of late, stirring up a hartal in Kerala through WhatsApp messages had triggered much hullabaloo.
There is now a reason for WhatsApp messages to be in the news once again, i.e. mob lynchings in different parts of the country in the name of false WhatsApp messages. A mob beat to death five persons in Dhule, Maharashtra on July 1 following such false messages. The reason was spreading fake video messages through WhatsApp portraying them as a group of child-lifters. About 10 persons have been killed in such mob attacks in Maharashtra in the last one and a half months. Similar reports have also emerged from several north Indian states.
When the WhatsApp killings increased, union Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad urged the company to be more ‘accountable and responsible’. The Minister was of the view that the company had the responsibility to ensure that their platform was not being misused by anyone. It must be kept in mind that this remark by the Minister comes in the backdrop of criticisms that the government has been failing in effectively tackling the mob killings. It is inevitable for any social media platform to have adequate restrictions and ethical framework. And action can be taken against the establishments that do not follow such rules. However, it is illogical for the government to be oblivious of its responsibilities and put all the blame on the mobile application.
In the background of the mob murders and the utterances of the minister, WhatsApp itself has come out with efforts for creating awareness. The company published full page advertisements in various newspapers explaining what users have to bear in mind. The first point WhatsApp puts forward is not to share forward messages without ensuring their authenticity and attribution. They have also announced that they will soon bring out a special mechanism to identify forward messages. The platform has highlighted 10 points in all, including not sharing messages that will send panic and verifying the authenticity of apparently incredible content. In a nutshell, the 10 items will amount to this: never share with anybody else anything that is not confirmed as authentic. Very important as it is, it is as much important to note that this cannot be controlled through legislation. This can be achieved only through a high sense of morality and justice on the part of users. What is imperative is to develop a culture of indulging in social media with a little greater sense of responsibility. And the onus of ensuring that rests with government agencies including the police, educational institutions, and voluntary organizations as much as with the companies concerned. The means devised for social networking should not be allowed to become tools of social unrest and chaos.
As per the statistics of December 2017, about 150 crore people use WhatsApp every month. In India alone this is 20 crore. What all can happen in a space where 20 crore people conduct themselves is an easy guess. For that very reason, in a domain where such a large section of the population interact, governments have a duty to put in place necessary regulations. This is not to say that that they should ban WhatsApp as countries like China did. What is needed is to modernise police in relation to cyber crimes. It has to be realized that cyber space is as important as the street and the law and order machinery has to be geared for that as well. At the same time, that should not go to such an extent as will endanger personal freedom of opinion. In short, the crux of the matter is to grasp the issue with all its complexities.