As hoax-fueled lynchings continue in India, Whatsapp puts limits on video-forwarding

The viral hoax video purporting to show child-snatchers kidnapping Indian children continues to fuel lynchmobs, whose death toll has climbed to more than two dozen victims.

The video is primarily spread on Whatsapp, mass-forwarded from Whatsapp group to Whatsapp group. After months of violence, Facebook (which owns Whatsapp) has taken a modest step to curb the viral spread of the video: they've limited forwards of videos to a maximum of 20 groups.

The action by Facebook comes in response to threats of regulation by Indian's communications ministry. Facebook released research saying that Indian political parties have abused Whatsapp's viral spreading tools for political purposes.

As Clay Shirky discussed in an excellent On The Media interview Facebook (and its subproducts like Instagram and Whatsapp) has a dilemma. For its users, it provides two features: finding people who share your interests (which it does very well) and giving you a place to discuss them (arguably the most primitive part of the service). The problem is that Facebook makes its money not by the normal, everyday, low-key discussion of shared interests, but by virality -- that's what advertisers pay for

The thing is, if you're in a forum for a little league team or a rare disease, you're not going to have "viral news" about your interest, so Facebook has to find ways to distract you from the thing you've come to the service for, hijacking your attention with something flashy and eye-catching.

This has incentivized Facebook to optimize its service for virality over discussion of shared interest, and that has opened the door for the kinds of hoaxes and political disinformation that dominates the platform today -- and it's also why Facebook is so slow to rein in any of these negative outcomes. Anything Facebook does to reduce virality cuts directly into its revenues. No one is paying to spread hoax videos about child-snatchers, but anything Facebook does to reduce their spread will also throttle other forms of viral information

The company, owned by Facebook, said this week that it had studied the way that WhatsApp was used by a particular Indian political party — which it did not name — in a recent state election in Karnataka, saying that campaign operatives formed dozens of WhatsApp groups, added telephone numbers and used those groups to send thousands of politically oriented spam messages. Spokesmen for the two major national political parties — the governing Bharatiya Janata Party and the main opposition Indian National Congress — denied manipulating the app.

WhatsApp said that use of the app in this way violates its terms of service — as well as why the app was built in the first place.

“We built WhatsApp as a private messaging app — a simple, secure and reliable way to communicate with friends and family. And as we’ve added new features, we’ve been careful to try and keep that feeling of intimacy which people say they love,” the blog post said.

WhatsApp launches new controls after widespread app-fueled mob violence in India [Annie Gowen and Elizabeth Dwoskin/Washington Post]