April 7, 2020Published by: Drew Benvie

WhatsApp limits message forwarding to fight spread of fake news

With 2 billion users, 65 billion+ messages shared daily, and usage soaring by 40% last month, WhatsApp has been a major force in connecting a locked-down global community. In a blog post published today, the messaging service has announced that it has brought in new limits to how messages can be forwarded, to address the spread of misinformation around the coronavirus.

"We’ve seen a significant increase in the amount of forwarding, which users have told us can feel overwhelming and can contribute to the spread of misinformation," WhatsApp said. "We believe it’s important to slow the spread of these messages down to keep WhatsApp a place for personal conversation."

The change that WhatsApp is making is through adjusting the way a message can continue to be forwarded. "We are now introducing a limit so that [messages that have been forwarded many times] can only be forwarded to one chat at a time," stated WhatsApp.

The World Health Organisation has already announced that there is a global misinformation pandemic, or an 'infodemic' as it calls it, and WhatsApp is clearly joining the fight against it. Numerous initiatives are under way to stem the spread of fake news online, such as Infotagion in the UK, the AFP's Coronavirus Verification Hub, and a new report by The European External Action Service.

What is key here is protecting the power of social media and messaging apps as a force for good in society today. On public-facing social media services, such as WhatsApp's parent company Facebook, its sibling Instagram, or others like Twitter, moderation of content is done differently, and fake news is removed at an industrial scale. The spread of private messages, however, is a different beast, and has to be handled in a different way. Or at least initially. In the future, I would like to see WhatsApp go further, either by allowing forwarded messages to be flagged as inappropriate, just as they can be on social media, or even through banning message forwarding altogether.

This move by WhatsApp will not prevent the sharing of disinformation altogether, but as WhatsApp made clear in the announcement, by slowing down the spread, the damage that the 'infodemic' can inflict will be reduced.

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