July 20, 2018

Less than two weeks after it announced a feature to label forwarded messages, WhatsApp is changing the feature again — this time specifically to curb the spread of misinformation in India.

On late Thursday night, the company launched a test to globally limit the distribution of forwarded messages, which is frequently the source of viral hoaxes. Users will only be able to forward messages to a maximum of 20 chats at a time, which WhatsApp hopes will slow down the transfer of misinformation, a spokesperson told Poynter in an email.

The change is a notable move for the Facebook-owned private messaging app, which in the past has taken a fairly hands-off approach to address misinformation. And in India — where rumors have contributed to the death of roughly a dozen people in mob violence since May — WhatsApp is taking more preemptive action against fake news.

There, users will only be able to forward messages to five chats at once. WhatsApp will also remove the “quick forward button” next to messages with images, video and audio, which, according to Thursday’s blog post, people forward more in India than any other market.

“We believe that these changes — which we'll continue to evaluate — will help keep WhatsApp the way it was designed to be: a private messaging app,” the blog post reads.

With more than 200 million users, India is WhatsApp’s largest market and a growing concern for the company. The Indian government has asked WhatsApp to do more to address viral misinformation than just label forwarded messages — and it's threatened to sue the company for allegedly enabling the recent lynchings of innocent civilians.

The latest tweak to WhatsApp’s forwarding feature is another iteration of the platform’s efforts to cut down on fake news. Other recent actions include the launch of a fund for researchers studying misinformation on the app, an advertising campaign in India and public support for independent fact-checking organizations.

Fact-checkers around the world commonly use the app to solicit hoaxes from users and distribute debunks in kind. The work is confounded by the fact that no one — not even WhatsApp itself — can see when and where content goes viral since the entire platform is encrypted.

While fact-checkers say WhatsApp’s recent actions won’t singlehandedly solve its misinformation problem, at least the platform is moving in the right direction.

“(These are) good steps overall,” Govindraj Ethiraj, founder of Indian fact-checking project Boom Live, told Poynter in a message. “I can't say they will at one shot address the big challenges of the spread of misinformation, but making it more cumbersome to forward messages and restricting chats seems to be a step in the right direction.”

Still, there are limitations to the steps WhatsApp has taken to combat misinformation. In Brazil, fact-checkers have seen people simply saving images and videos to their phones to strip off the forwarded label, then sending them as original messages.

And with WhatsApp’s new limit on forwards, it’s conceivable that users will continue to game the feature — perhaps by exiting a message and forwarding it to another five or 20 groups.

“People will always develop workarounds if there is an incentive to do so,” Ethiraj said. “Anticipating what those are is the tricky part.”

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
Daniel Funke

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