WhatsApp hits India’s Jio feature phones amidst fake news violence

False rumors forwarded on WhatsApp have led angry mobs to murder strangers in India, but the Facebook-owned chat app is still racing to add users in the country. Today it launched a feature phone version of WhatsApp for JioPhone 1 and 2’s KaiOS, which are designed to support 22 of India’s vast array of native languages. Users will be able to send text, photos, videos, and voice messages with end-to-end encryption, though it will lack advanced features like augmented reality and Snapchat Stories-style Status updates.

WhatsApp was supposed to launch alongside the JioPhone 2 that debuted last month for roughly $41, but was delayed. 40 million JioPhone 1s had already been sold, and it’s been estimated to control 27 of the Indian mobile phone market and 47 percent of the country’s feature phone market. Coming to JioPhone should open up a big new growth vector for WhatsApp as it strives to grow its 1.5 billion user count towards the big 2 billion milestone.

Meanwhile, it could make the Reliance-owned Jio mobile network more appealing. It could also strengthen the KaiOS operating system, developed by a San Diego startup of the same name that recently took a $22 million investment from Google. WhatsApp rolls out on the JioPhone AppStore today and should be available to everyone by September 20th, and we’ve asked if it will come to other KaiOS devices made by Nokia and Alcatel.

WhatsApp has scrambled to safeguard its app after numerous reports of rumors circulated on its app about gangs and child abductors led angry mobs to kill people in the streets. Five nomads were recently beaten to death in a rural village called Rainpada after residents watched inaccurate videos forwarded through WhatsApp about kidnappers supposedly rolling through the area, BuzzFeed reports.

WhatsApp recently limited how many people you can forward a message to, and began a radio PSA campaign in Hindi on 46 India stations warning people to verify things they hear on WhatsApp before acting on them. But it’s clear that parent company Facebook still sees spreading WhatsApp as part of its mission to bring the world closer together, even as that comes at a cost.

Jio’s “transition” phones that offer a few third-party apps but not full-fledged smartphone capabilities, alongside its affordable mobile data, have significantly reduced the cost and friction of being online in India. But with that access comes newfound dangers, especially if not combined with news literacy and digital skills education that could help users spot false information before it sparks violence.

Increasingly the tech world is learning that connecting people to the Internet also means connecting them to the worst elements of humanity. That will necessitate a new wave of pessimists and cynics as product managers in order to predict and thwart ways to abuse software instead of allowing idealists to blindly build tools that can be weaponized.

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