(Updates to add WhatsApp statement)
MUMBAI, July 3 (Reuters) - India has asked Facebook Inc -owned WhatsApp messenger to take steps to prevent the circulation of false texts and provocative content that have led to a series of lynchings and mob beatings across the country in the past few months.
With more than 200 million users in India, WhatsApp’s biggest market in the world, false news and videos circulating on the messaging app have become a new headache for social media giant Facebook, already grappling with a privacy scandal.
So far this year, false messages about child abductors on WhatsApp have helped to trigger mass beatings of more than a dozen people in India - at least three of whom have died.
In addition, five people were beaten to death by a mob on Sunday in a fresh incident of lynching in India’s western state of Maharashtra on suspicions that they were child abductors.
“Deep disapproval of such developments has been conveyed to the senior management of WhatsApp and they have been advised that necessary remedial measures should be taken,” India’s IT ministry said in a strongly-worded statement on Tuesday.
The ministry said law enforcement authorities were taking steps to apprehend culprits responsible for the killings but the repeated flow of fake news messages on WhatsApp was also a matter of deep concern.
It also said that messaging platform “cannot evade accountability and responsibility” when such services are abused by users to spread misinformation.
“The government has also conveyed in no uncertain terms that WhatsApp must take immediate action to end this menace and ensure that their platform is not used for such malafide activities,” it added.
WhatsApp said it does not want the platform to be used for spreading misinformation, adding the dissemination of false messages was a challenge that companies and society should address.
The firm also announced awards for researchers to explore misinformation related issues and share their proposals with the messaging service, its parent Facebook, academia and policymakers.
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment on the government’s statement.
WhatsApp previously told Reuters that it is educating users to identify fake news as well as considering changes to the service. For example, there is now a public beta test that is labelling any forwarded message. Last week, it also introduced a new setting which allowed only the administrators or owners of groups to send messages. (Reporting by Sankalp Phartiyal; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)