Punishing WhatsApp, Facebook group admins for offensive posts may be a harsh move, but necessary

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Are the authorities taking an easy route to address the cyber-rumors problem?


If you’re an avid social media user, you’d probably know what anything going ‘viral’ means. Some of them are adorable dog or cat videos or some funny meme or anything that will make you guffaw while scrolling through Facebook NewsFeed or chatting in a WhatsApp group. But then there are some ridiculous things that go viral and unfortunately, they hold no truth. With no proper fact verification method in place, people are triggered by fake stories, which at times are deliberately spread to create fear, outrage and even hate.

‘Fake news’ isn’t just the problem of the US. India, which has one of the largest user bases for Facebook and WhatsApp, has been equally affected by this problem. And our problems are beyond fake news affecting an election result. Of late, incidents like WhatsApp and social media being used by hate mongers and even terrorists have come into the light. With the issue increasingly becoming a major problem, Varanasi authorities have come up with a solution – hold these WhatsApp Group admins responsible for spreading false and offensive content. In simpler words, such admins if found guilty can be sent to the jail. ALSO READ: WhatsApp, Facebook group admins can be jailed for offensive posts

Apparently, it’s not the first time Whatsapp group admins have come under the scanner. In 2015, the agencies mulled such legal actions against these group admins. The legal actions included cases under Section 505 1(B) of the IPC, “which forbids making or publishing any statement, rumour or report with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public, or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquility,” said a Deccan Chronicle report.

While Facebook is doing its bit of cracking down on fake news, WhatsApp becomes a complicated subject for authorities. Since it’s a message-based platform and has end-to-end encryption in place, it is difficult for authorities to monitor and crack down on such rumors unless they are flagged by someone.

Cyber law expert Pavan Duggal told BGR India, “The law is very clear and it defines roles, duties and responsibilities of the service providers. And all OTT players become the intermediaries. The section 79 2C of the IT Act mandates these intermediaries to exercise due diligence and obligations under the law. And as the part of the due diligence, the government has notified these service providers to inform users that they should not use the platform for terror purposes or anything that is against law. Clearly, if a WhatsApp platform is used for such things, WhatsApp administrators will be held responsible.”

“However, banning the internet is not the solution. We need to tighten the provisions pertaining to the intermediaries liability. The government, however, is yet to come up with detailed provisions regarding cyber terror and obligations for these service providers. These service providers cannot be mute spectators,” he added.

“A WhatsApp administrator is “intermediary” they don’t have the actual control over the content, hence Doctrine of “Safe Harbour” applies to the administrator. As per The IT Act, 2000 i.e. the cyber law of India, an intermediary is defined as any person who on behalf of another person stores or transmits that message or provides any service with respect to that message.Intermediaries are given immunity under section 79. If the Admin is notified about bad deeds happening and he doesn’t take action in the reasonable amount of time, I think then he is not qualified for immunity under section 79 of The IT Act,2000,” Prashant Mali, a cyber law and cyber policy expert, told BGR India.

Though the latest diktat will raise some eyebrows, perhaps it may be too harsh and not help resolve the root problems. But the thing is that the situation we are grappling with today hasn’t happened overnight, in fact, it has been an old problem affecting people and surprisingly hasn’t been debated at a larger scale, especially in India. Also, the fact remains that indeed these WhatsApp Group messages have played a key role in spreading false information, and even causing panic among people. There are plenty of occasions where such messages have played a key role. Back in 2015, parents in Mumbai were left in anxiety after WhatsApp rumors emerged about a few gangs of women were kidnapping school kids. The local police had to set up a hotline to reach out to the parents.


If you talk about the current scenario, there are already outrageous information, mostly fake, about cow vigilantes, and Kashmir and Army situation among others doing the rounds on the social media, only to create fear and hatred between the two biggest religious communities in the country. Last month, Newslaundry reported that how political parties extensively used WhatsApp to propagate the propaganda. “A lot of these messages sent by our members included propaganda against our opponents. Many had statements which were factually incorrect,” a person associated with a major political party told the publication.

Even though Facebook and other internet companies are making efforts to put a check on fake news, but the truth remains a lot of damage has already been done. While all these fact verification methodologies are at the nascent stage and yet to be tested on a larger scale, the internet has become an easy medium to target a community, person and even a thought.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee British scientist, who is credited with creating world wide web, recently commented, “social networks should be thinking about how they can tweak their systems to make the truth more likely to propagate, and fake news likely to fade out.”

I perceive India as an emotional country and aren’t we offended by anything and anyone nowadays? People who all are on WhatsApp and Facebook and other social media platforms are highly vulnerable to such nuisance that’s going on. The so-called outrage and trolling that at times have taken a toll on people and surprisingly have become the topic of debate on prime time on several news channels. From the just humanitarian point of view, recently my colleague wrote about the after effects of social media and targeting. ALSO READ: The Bad, The Worse and The Worst of Social Media

I think the Varanasi authorities are not completely wrong in cracking down on these WhatsApp groups. Since there’s no proper surveillance in India and an easier way to track down the source of such rumors, police and relevant agencies get a hard time addressing the problem. One of the solutions, which in my opinion is futile, the governments have come up is banning the internet altogether. Already, there have been about 22 incidents of the governments banning the internet, reports Buzzfeed.

However, in an ideal situation, there should be a mechanism in place to track the sources of such content and those should be held responsible rather than the group admins, though their roles in encouraging such rumor-mongering groups/messages should also be investigated.

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