India pressured WhatsApp to address mob violence. It hired someone 8,000 miles away.

More than two dozen people have been killed in 17 separate incidents since May as viral fake videos spread unchecked on the network, stirring up racial and religious tensions.
September 24, 2018, 1:00pm

WhatsApp has appointed a "grievance officer" to help police hate speech in India after a series of mob lynchings on the subcontinent. The only problem is the person dealing with the complaints is based 8,000 miles away, in Silicon Valley.

Facing pressure from authorities in India, WhatsApp has announced it has appointed Komal Lahiri deal with complaints from Facebook, which owns WhatsApp. The company’s first grievance officer, Lahiri was named at the end of August but it was only made public over the weekend when WhatsApp updated its website.


Lahiri will continue in her current role as WhatsApp's senior director for global customer operations and localization, meaning her position as grievance officer will not be a full-time role. WhatsApp has an estimated 200 million users in India. A WhatsApp spokesperson did not say how much time Lahiri will dedicate to the role, but said the company is in the process of hiring a head of India who will build a locally based team.

By law all tech companies operating in the country have to have a grievance officer who deals with complaints from the public. WhatsApp’s website says members of the public can contact Lahiri via email or send queries through postal services.

“If you’re contacting us about a specific account, please include your phone number in full international format, including the country code,” the company said.

More than two dozen people have been killed in 17 separate incidents since May as viral fake videos spread unchecked on the network, stirring up racial and religious tensions.

The appointment comes after the Indian government and Supreme Court both put pressure on WhatsApp to tackle the problem of fake news spreading on its platform.

It appears Lahiri’s appointment came on the back of a meeting on August 21 between Electronics and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and WhatsApp CEO Chris Daniels in New Delhi. During the meeting, Prasad pushed Daniels to find solutions to the problems WhatsApp was creating in India and specifically suggested that WhatsApp appoint a grievance officer.


A week later, the Supreme Court issued a decree telling WhatsApp to “comply with Indian laws and appoint a grievance officer who shall address grievances of the consumers as well as coordinate with investigating agencies.”

While Lahiri’s location seems at odds with her role, it’s not out of the ordinary for major tech companies to locate such roles overseas. Google’s grievance officer is also located in Silicon Valley, while Facebook and Twitter direct Indian users to Dublin to handle their complaints.

WhatsApp has already taken some steps to address the problems it is causing in India, limiting the number of times a message or video can be forwarded, as well as making it clear when content had been forwarded.

WhatsApp has also published full-page ads in Indian newspapers to help educate users about how to better identify fake news.

Cover: In this May 25, 2018 file photo, family members grieve by a portrait of Bala Krishna, a 33-year-old motorized rickshaw driver who was killed by a mob inflamed by social media in Jiyapalli village, outside his house at Korremula village, on the outskirts of Hyderabad, India. (AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A., File)