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WhatsApp’s clarifications fail to allay user fears, fact checkers say misinformation on company’s privacy policy on the rise

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WhatsApp's clarifications fail to allay user fears, fact checkers say misinformation on company's privacy policy on the rise 2

NEW DELHI: WhatsApp continues to face deep distrust among users around its new privacy policy, despite repeated claims by the Facebook-owned messaging app that conversations on its platform are end-to-end encrypted, fact checkers for social media companies said.

Often being accused of helping spread fake news and misinformation, WhatsApp is now at the receiving end of posts and messages on social media claiming it can read all chats and messages.

The latest method the platform adopted to clarify the privacy policy has triggered fresh criticism, and fact checkers and brand experts said it will have to make sustained efforts to dispel the fear of users and make them understand the concept of end-to-end encryption.

After announcing on Saturday that it is moving back by three months the date by which people will be asked to review and accept the new privacy policy and terms, WhatsApp put out a status update on all Indian user accounts on Sunday, stating it can’t read or listen to personal conversations and that it doesn’t share user contacts with Facebook.

WhatsApp also said it is going to do a lot more to clear up the misinformation around how privacy and security works on the platform and that it will go to people gradually to review the policy at their own pace before new business options become available on May 15.

But, users in its biggest market were not convinced.

“WhatsApp giving unsolicited messages in user statuses for the first time ever in the history of WhatsApp is a testament of how ads will slowly creep into the application. Backfired. #WhatsAppStatus,” Twitter user Kautuk wrote on the microblogging site.

Hashtags WhatsApp Status, and WhatsApp Leaks — centred on purported WhatsApp conversations between Republic TV editor in chief Arnab Goswami and Patho Dasgupta, the former chief executive of TV rating firm BARC — were trending on Twitter on Sunday.

“That is how much WhatsApp respects your privacy. They get into your phone and ask you to see the status of a contact you never have in your phone. This is called privacy,” another user, Chakradhar SP, tweeted, referring to WhatsApp’s status update.

“We have seen a steady flow of misinformation around WhatsApp’s privacy policy and I think the platform needs to have sustained efforts, especially for digital and mobile audiences, to allay their fears,” said Saurabh Shukla, editor in chief of media platform NewsMobile.

Ekta Sharma, chief editor of Check4Spam, a not-for-profit entity that verifies posts on social media platforms, said there is a lot of misinformation around the privacy update. “Groups of family and friends are worried about the privacy of their chats. Users are thinking they will be shown ads around subjects they are talking about in the chats.”

Pratik Sinha, founder of fact-checking website Alt News, said there is enormous distrust for parent Facebook on social media platforms. “WhatsApp leaks are happening because police are exporting chats after physically accessing the device. Once, those chat backups come out as leaks, people who don’t understand the concept of end-to-end encryption get alarmed,” he said.

“Not many people understand security and encryption. So any action that Facebook and WhatsApp take, people are not willing to believe their intentions are true. The distrust has been built due to multiple incidents. Social media platforms have repeatedly failed to curb hate and misinformation, and have been inconsistent in executing their policies,” he added.

Jency Jacob, managing director at fact checker BOOM, said there is a lot of panic. “Chat backups are still exposed if someone decides to pick them up from iCloud or from Google. That is where the user concerns are coming from. We did write a couple of explanatory articles. But, people are saying what does encryption mean? It doesn’t mean anything if the police pick you up for something, and they can restore the backups,” he added.

Harish Bijoor, brand strategy expert and founder, Harish Bijoor Consults said India is a ‘high stakes’ market for WhatsApp. “WhatsApp’s downloads from app stores have gone down dramatically as a result of the privacy policy update. WhatsApp is a medium that leads to a viral reach for messages. And suddenly, WhatsApp has become the butt of it all in terms of it being the viral message. The medium has become the message. This is bad for it because people have moved to Telegram and Signal in a big way. The truth is WhatsApp is end to end encrypted but a perception has been created that it is not as safe as users thought it would be,” he added.

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