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WhatsApp tweaks its service to head off fake-news killings

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse.

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

Mohinidevi Nath displays a photo of her cousin Shantadevi Nath, who was killed by a mob that believed rumours spread on WhatsApp that she was intent on abducting children, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in India's western Gujarat state in June 2018. (Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)

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  • WhatsApp is making major changes to its messaging service in an effort to stop the spread of fake news and mob violence, especially in India.
  • Over the past few months, police and dog teams have searched close to 100 properties in the Toronto area known to be associated with alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur. After announced the discovery of an eighth body, the detective in charge of the investigation said, "I think we're done now."
  • As in many regions this summer, the heat in Japan has been excruciating — and deadly.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here

When fake news becomes deadly 

WhatsApp is making major changes to its messaging service in an effort to stop the spread of fake news and mob violence.

As of last night, users around the world are now able to forward messages to a maximum of 20 chat groups — except in India, where the limit will be just five. The old cap, rarely encountered by users, was 250 groups.

"Today, we're launching a test to limit forwarding that will apply to everyone using WhatsApp," the company announced via a blog post. "In India — where people forward more messages, photos, and videos than any other country in the world — we'll also test a lower limit of 5 chats at once and we'll remove the quick forward button next to media messages."

The special treatment for the subcontinent, where WhatsApp has some 200 million users, has everything to do with a spate of violent attacks fueled by rumours spread on the platform.

At least a dozen people have been set upon and killed over the past two months, in a hysteria over fake stories and videos about child kidnappers stalking the nation.

The latest attack came last Friday, when a group of three men were surrounded by an angry crowd of approximately 2,000 people, pulled from their car and severely beaten in southern Karnataka state. Mohammad Azam, 27, was killed, and his two companions critically injured.

Gopal Chandra Das, father of lynching victim Nilotpal Das, places a picture of his son at his residence in Guwahati, the capital city of India's northeastern state of Assam. The younger Das was beaten to death on June 8 by a mob in Karbi Anglong district that suspected him of being a child abductor. (Biju Boro/AFP/Getty Images)

Police say the men had stopped in a small village for a rest break and shared some chocolates with local children. Elders became suspicious, and after the men left, used WhatsApp to send messages to the village up the road, where a mob blocked the way. Twenty-five people now face charges in the fatal attack.  

The incident came just two weeks after the lynching of five people in the western state of Maharashtra, after locals accused them of being a gang of kidnappers, again inspired by rumours that had spread on the social media platform.

In June, a mob in the northeastern state of Assam beat two young men to death after they got lost and stopped to ask directions in a small village. There have been at least seven more deaths linked to the rumours since May, including a newly arrived man in Bangalore who was beaten to death by a mob with cricket bats, a woman in Tamil Nadu who was lynched for giving candy to children and the murder of a transgender woman in Hyderabad.

WhatsApp-inspired killings are not a new phenomenon in India — the list dates back to at least 2015.

What seems different is the international attention now focused on the problem. And the willingness of the Facebook-owned company to address the issue.

The message cap is the third measure introduced since the early July lynchings in Maharashtra. The company had previously added a new label that identifies forwarded content, and given group administrators additional power to restrict members from sending text messages, photos or videos.

The most visible attempt to combat misinformation, however, has been a newspaper advertising blitz. Last week, WhatsApp took out full-page ads in all of India's leading newspapers, offering readers 10 tips on spotting fake news.

"Just because a message is shared many times does not make it true," read one piece of advice.

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Eighth body found in McArthur investigation

​Toronto police have identified the remains of Bruce McArthur's eighth alleged victim and say that they now believe there are no more bodies to be found.

A member of the Toronto Police Service explores a property along Mallory Cres. in Toronto during an investigation relating to alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur. (Tijana Martin/Canadian Press)

"Right now we have nothing to suggest that Mr. McArthur is responsible for more than the eight murders for which he has been charged," Det.-Sgt. Hank Idsinga, the lead investigator in the case, told a news conference this morning.

Nine days of excavations by forensic teams in a ravine behind the midtown Toronto home where seven bodies had previously been found uncovered what Idsinga termed the "bits and pieces" of Majeed Kayhan, 58, who went missing in Oct. 2012.

McArthur had already been charged with Kayhan's murder, along with the homicides of Skandaraj Navaratnam, 40; Andrew Kinsman, 49; Selim Esen, 44; Abdulbasir Faizi, 44; Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam, 37; Dean Lisowick, 47; and Soroush Mahmudi, 50.

Over the past few months, police and dog teams have searched close to 100 properties in the Toronto area known to be associated with the alleged serial killer, a 66-year-old landscaper by trade. Idsinga today said that the only location where they found human remains was the Mallory Crescent home, and that they have no intention of returning there, or to any of the other properties.

"I think we're done now. I hope that we are done now, and that there is nothing left," said the detective.

Police continue to probe murder cold cases and examine missing person reports dating back to the 1970s, looking for possible links to McArthur. To date, however, they have established no connections.

Majeed Kayhan's remains were found after police spent nine days searching a ravine near a home where alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur worked as a landscaper. (Toronto Police Service)

Idsinga said that they have also established a "diligent timeline" of McArthur's life in order to see if they need to widen the geographic scope of their enquiries, but remain focused on the Toronto area at present.

The investigation will continue for some time, Idsinga said.

"I'm still getting tips. We're following up on absolutely everything, so we still have a lot of work to do."

Beating the heat in Japan

Japan is suffering through a record heat wave that has killed more than 30 people and sent at least 10,000 to hospital over the past 10 days.

Yesterday, the temperature in central Japan hit 40.7 C — the highest reading in at least five years — with daytime highs over 35 C recorded at 190 of the country's 927 weather stations, and temps over 30 C at 640 sites.

A heat wave continues throughout Japan as the temperatures soared to 40 degrees Celsius in the Tokyo metropolitan area in July 2018, according to the Meteorological Agency. (Shizuo Kambayashi/Associated Press)

On Wednesday, Tokyo set a single-day record for emergency calls, with 3,000 appeals for help and 317 people transported to hospital. It topped the previous mark of 2,900 calls set the day before.

With the forecast calling for the heat to continue through at least early next week, officials are urging the public to find ways to keep cool and protect themselves against sunstroke.

Sales of heat-relief products such as cooling sheets and blankets have spiked. So, too, has demand for "body fragrance papers" — scented deodorant wipes meant to soak up sweat. Meanwhile, beverage companies have been busy introducing special anti-heat drinks with ingredients like "snow salt," yuzu citrus peel and fermented lactic acid.

What isn't on, however, is cheap beer.

This week, 7-Eleven in Japan backed away from a plan to start offering draft beer at some of its Tokyo convenience stores. The chain wanted to sell cups at the register and charge 100 yen ($1.18 Cdn) for a small self pour, and 190 yen ($2.24) for a large one. Beer taps, decorated with slogans like, "Today becomes a happy day again when drinking a bit," had already appeared in some stores.

A woman uses a pack of refrigerant to cool down during a heat wave in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, Japan. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

But critics pointed out that the inexpensive suds might create problems, incentivizing patrons to drink to excess, causing noise in residential neighbourhoods — or worse still, drive home.

Following a social media whipping, the company has announced that the pilot program is on indefinite hold -- but not for the reasons you might think.

"There was a possibility that the shops selling the beer would experience overwhelming demand," Katsuhiko Shimizu, a spokesman for Seven & I Holdings, the parent company told the Japan Times, making it "extremely difficult" for staff to please their customers.

Quote of the moment

"Six years ago, we wanted to do a show in Toronto. The stage collapsed, killing one of our colleagues and friends. The people who should be held accountable are still not being held accountable — in your city. The silence is f--king deafening."

Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, expressing the band's frustration with the outcome of an investigation into a stage collapse that killed their drum tech, Scott Johnson, during the group's first Toronto concert since the 2012 incident.

What The National is reading

  • Storm sinks Missouri duck boat, killing 13, including children (CNN)
  • Cameroon's military accused of burning civilians alive (Guardian)
  • Aeroplan to launch charter airline after Air Canada deal ends (CBC)
  • Undaunted by creditors and fraud charges, Peter Pocklington launches pot company (CBC)
  • 79 moons of Jupiter and counting (NY Times)
  • Indigenous 'man of the hole' has lived alone in Amazon rainforest for 22 years (CBC)
  • The massive black sarcophagus was opened: Here's what was inside (Live Science)
  • Brotherly hate: Amid Oasis reunion buzz, a history of the Gallaghers (Telegraph)
  • 'Thomas the Tank' land train stolen (BBC)

Today in history

July 20, 1969: Moon landing inspires Canadian children

Back in the summer of '69, these young and restless Canadians were asked if they'd like to go to the moon to join American astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. "I can't, 'cause I'm not a boy," explains one young lady. But the best answer is probably the kid who paraphrases perhaps the best-known quote of the 20th century. "It's a little foot for man, but a big foot for mankind."
American astronauts have taken the lead in the superpower space race with the Apollo 11 lunar landing. It's July 1969 and Canadian children have been watching and considering how the expedition will change their world. 1:41

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About the Author

Jonathon Gatehouse

Jonathon Gatehouse

Has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, including seven Olympic Games and a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey.