25 men were arrested in India after a 2,000-person mob killed a 27-year-old man over baseless rumours that he was a child kidnapper.
The deadly incident was the latest in a flood of deadly lynchings across the country sparked by hoaxes on social media — and now the Indian government is threatening WhatsApp with legal action over them.
AFP reports that the Indian government has now publicly warned that it may take action against WhatsApp over the issue, with the information technology ministry issuing a harshly-worded statement on Thursday.
"Rampant circulation of irresponsible messages in large volumes on their platform have not been addressed adequately by WhatsApp," says the statement. "When rumours and fake news get propagated by mischief-mongers, the medium used for such propagation cannot evade responsibility and accountability."
"If (WhatsApp) remain mute spectators they are liable to be treated as abettors and thereafter face consequent legal action."
The Facebook-owned messaging app has come under intense scrutiny in recent months over hoaxes and disinformation circulating on its platform, leading to sometimes deadly mob violence. There have reportedly been at least 20 lynchings in the last two months caused by child abduction allegations, according to The Guardian.
WhatsApp's messages are end-to-end encrypted for security, meaning the company cannot monitor users' messages for misinformation or deliberate hoaxes the way Facebook can on its Messenger app. The company is taking some steps to try and tackle the issue, including flagging messages that have been forwarded, to make it clear that the sender isn't the original author of the post. It has also taken out full-page newspaper ads to warn about these hoaxes.