WhatsApp has recently come under the spotlight for the way the platform can be used to spread misinformation about supposed cures for COVID-19. It is now attempting to stem this tide of misinformation by implementing a new limit on the number of users a message can be forwarded to. Viral (or highly forwarded) messages sent through a chain of five or more users can soon only be forwarded to one person at a time.
The most recent measure prior to this was in 2019, when the app decided to allow a user to share frequently forwarded messages only up to 5 chats at a time. Until 2018, users had been able to forward a message to 256 people at once.
WhatsApp hopes this new update will slow the speed at which information passes through the platform, reports The Verge.
Stemming an infodemic
WhatsApp has had a long history of being used to spread misinformation. In eastern Congo, for instance, misinformation, rumours, and falsehoods about the ebola virus disease proliferated beyond control in 2018 through the popular messaging app, in specific cases becoming as deadly as the disease itself. This led to widespread scepticism about the disease and distrust around the government’s response to it.
Due to the encryption WhatsApp uses, the company cannot see the contents of messages sent via the platform, which prevents it from employing the same content moderation strategies that other platforms like Twitter might.
“It’s not that [Facebook] can’t, or that they’re refusing to take [misinformation] down,” said Claire Wardle of First Draft News in an interview with The New Humanitarian. “They don’t know what messages are being shared. Removing the encryption would undermine what can also make WhatsApp so important to many users – its emphasis on privacy.”
Misinformation notwithstanding, the company nevertheless believes that not all forwarding is bad, stating in a blog that “many users forward helpful information, as well as funny videos, memes, and reflections or prayers they find meaningful. In recent weeks, people have also used WhatsApp to organise public moments of support for frontline health workers.”