Disinformation campaigns have weaponized WhatsApp into very real fake news

Judging by mainstream media in the U.S., you would think the world is ending because of fake news and Russian trolls on Facebook and Twitter. But around the world, the worst danger posed by the spread of fake news actually happens through private messaging apps. And in countries like India, fake news "danger" is not hyperbole. At least 24 people have been killed by mob lynchings in India this year, caused by rumors that spread on WhatsApp.

With private messaging apps like WhatsApp, Telegram, WeChat, and Line, people can forward messages to their friends or groups, with no way to determine the origin of the message. These messages are encrypted, so that no one can read messages not intended for them. Supposedly, even employees of these apps can't access the messages.

RELATED: BuzzFeed Writer: Why Can't Google, Facebook Get a Grip on Fake News?

Samantha Bradshaw works for Oxford University's Computational Propaganda Project, which studies disinformation campaigns around the world. The project has found political disinformation campaigns waged through private messaging apps in 10 countries so far this year. Bradshaw says, "The closed platforms can be more dangerous because the information is spreading in these intimate groups of friends and family – people we tend to trust."

Unvetted rumors spread through these apps have turned deadly. In one incident, a group of friends were driving through a village and paused to give chocolate to some local children. Someone started a rumor on WhatsApp that the carful of friends were kidnappers. A mob formed quickly and overwhelmed the group of friends, killing one of them, a 32-year-old man. The man's brother said, "They kept pleading, but nobody listened to them. My brother was killed by fake news."

In Brazil, a fake message claiming that a yellow-fever vaccine was dangerous spread through WhatsApp. So many people avoided the mandatory vaccine that the government had to issue an official warning debunking the claim.

Technology continues to improve so many aspects of life, but it hasn't been able to improve one key thing for mankind: our ability to tell the truth.

WhatsApp was founded by two libertarians with a deep belief in privacy. Their whole concept for the app revolved around not mining and storing information about users. In 2014, Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19 billion. Ironically, the privacy controls that made this and similar apps so appealing, are the very things people are now using to weaponize the app.

Technology continues to improve so many aspects of life, but it hasn't been able to improve one key thing for mankind: our ability to tell the truth.

This article originally appeared on Glenn Beck

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