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WhatsApp Launches a Tip Line for Misinformation in India Ahead of Elections

WhatsApp has been struggling to address misinformation and rumors on its app without compromising security. “Checkpoint Tipline” gives users in India an opt-in option to submit rumors for fact-checking.

by Caroline Haskins
02 April 2019, 11:56pm

Image: Image of Modi from Flickr and image of c from WhatsApp. Edited by Caroline Haskins

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

WhatsApp, the encrypted messaging app owned by Facebook, launched a rumor and misinformation tip line for users in India on Tuesday ahead of the country’s prime minister elections, which will be held from April 11 to 19. The launch comes after reports that existing efforts from WhatsApp to fight rumors and misinformation in India are having little consequence.

The tip line—called the “Checkpoint Tipline”—must be manually messaged or added to a user’s contact list using the number +91-9643-000-888. Users can then submit a rumor as a text or an image.

WhatsApp users are supposed to receive a response from the Tipline, which “will indicate if information is classified as true, false, misleading, disputed or out of scope and include any other related information that is available,” according to WhatsApp a press release shared with Motherboard via email. There’s no standard timeframe in which users are guaranteed a response.

All tips are sent to India-based start-up PROTO, which using a fact-checking software called “Check” to investigate the rumors. Check was developed by American journalism non-profit Meedan, but the the Checkpoint verification and research center is based in India. Meedan spokesperson Tom Trewinnard told Motherboard in an email that Check works using a combination of researchers and bots.

“For example, Check will detect if something we receive contains a visual element, and will prompt the Checkpoint analysts to do a reverse image search,” Trewinnard said. “Check can also detect duplicate and similar requests, which helps the analysis of larger data sets.”

False rumors and misinformation are notorious issues on WhatsApp in India, where an estimated 200 million people use the app. Rumors spread on the app have been linked to lynchings. For WhatsApp, addressing these issues without compromising the security of the app has been a persistent challenge.

Last July, WhatsApp limited message forwarding to five people in an attempt to limit the virality of information spread on the app. According to WABetaInfo, WhatsApp is currently testing a version of the app that has built-in search by image feature. By tapping a picture and selecting search by image, WhatsApp beta testers are directed to Google search by image feature.

The Checkpoint Tipline represents an attempt to address political misinformation specifically. According to the WhatsApp press release, the tipline is a part of a larger Checkpoint research project “commissioned and technically assisted by WhatsApp.” The project will “create a database of rumors to study misinformation during elections.”

It’s unclear whether the Checkpoint Tipline has the capacity to effectively prevent misinformation for this election cycle in India. As highlighted in reporting from Buzzfeed News, WhatsApp can aggravate existing social and cultural challenges in India, but WhatsApp didn’t independently create those challenges.

Motherboard tested the Checkpoint Tipline by submitting a false rumor about Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The rumor—which spread on Facebook in recent weeks, according to India Today—claimed that PM Modi made a list of the “50 most honest politicians released in the United States.” Motherboard submitted this tip as a text, and as an image (using the same image that spread on Facebook in recent weeks.)

Checkpoint Tipline promoted Motherboard to verify the submission of the rumor by sending 1. A confirmation text read, “Thank you, we’ve received your request and you should hear from us again shortly.” Motherboard has not heard back from Checkpoint Tipline for three hours, but we will update this article if we hear back.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.