WhatsApp against fake news: two million accounts blocked

An algorithm is able to recognize fake accounts by analyzing data made public by users

WhatsApp has blocked over 2 million accounts to counter the transmission of false and dangerous news in India. The Facebook-controlled company said that 95 percent of these users were blocked for violating limits on the number of times messages can be forwarded in the Asian country.

This operation is a model that can be applied in other nations, such as Italy, considering that with the same technology used in India, WhatsApp is already able to recognize and block eight million fake accounts per month worldwide, out of a total of 2 billion currently active.

Fake news in India has already claimed victims

In India, where WhatsApp has the largest number of users with over 400 million subscribers, the spread of fake news and unsubstantiated rumors is a huge social problem. Many people, in fact, rely on the messaging app to inform themselves about current events and news regarding Covid-19 and when fake news goes viral, it can reach tens of thousands of users in a few hours, thwarting any attempt to counteract its spread.

In the past, some fake messages and videos, which circulated unchecked in the country, triggered numerous incidents of violence, even causing the death of six people in 2018, who were accused, unjustly, of kidnapping children in several Indian states. The dangerous situation had prompted WhatsApp in April 2020 to limit the sharing of a single message to no more than five people in India, a fact that prompted millions of users to create secondary accounts to increase the "virality" of messages.

The deletion of the accounts, which took place between May 15 and June 15, was therefore meant to limit the spread of messages through these fake accounts. The company said the move only affects those who have sent, with a "high and abnormal message rate," unverified news, photos and videos.

WhatsApp often ends up at the center of controversy for spreading fake news and sharing sensitive data in India, where there is currently a bitter clash with the New Delhi government over new laws that since May require messaging app developers to report the original sender of a message forwarded over and over again. According to WhatsApp, all of this greatly impairs the privacy and freedom of its users, while New Delhi argues that the rules are meant to prevent abuse and misinformation.

Privacy and fake news: how does WhatsApp spot fake accounts

To spot fake accounts, the Facebook company used artificial intelligence. An algorithm analyzed the behavior of users without reading the content of private conversations, protected by the end-to-end encryption system.

The program analyzed, in particular, all the public data of users, such as the number, profile photo and phrases of WhatsApp statuses, recorded the number of message forwards and shares and collected reports and blocks for spam between users. This operation, however, raises questions about the protection of personal data and the real confidentiality of messages exchanged in chats and groups.