September 27, 2019

Limiting the number of forwards a single message can have on WhatsApp might not be the final solution for misinformation in the app, as users might have thought.

Months ago, after countless reports of viral misinformation spreading on WhatsApp, the company announced it would limit to 5 the number of forwards allowed per message. It was seen as an effort to reduce the impact of false content. A study published at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) in Brazil this week reveals, however, that this limitation hasn’t been as effective at curbing viral hoaxes.

“(Limiting the number of forwards to) 5 is something WhatsApp chose to do. No one knows if they tested it (before applying it), or how effective that decision has been so far,” said Fabricio Benevenuto, a professor of computer science at UFMG, in a conversation with the IFCN. “That’s what we wanted to see in this paper.”

Benevenuto studies misinformation on WhatsApp and has developed a WhatsApp Monitor, which allows researchers to see what content has been shared the most on public WhatsApp groups in Brazil, India and Indonesia on any given day. He has written several articles about the messaging app, including one for The New York Times in 2018.

This week, his team concluded that while the decision of limiting forwards to 5 did, in some cases, delay the spread of information, it didn’t prevent the diffusion of highly viral content.

In countries where it is popularly used, WhatsApp has become a hub for conspiracy theories, propaganda and hoaxes.

In the beginning of the year, when Brazil’s Minister of Education Abraham Weintraub claimed that there was a mess of debauchery and “naked people” inside university campuses to justify a 30% cut to their budgets, journalists and fact-checkers were quick to point out the baselessness of his claims.

But on WhatsApp, the reaction was way different. Within only 24 hours, old and out-of-context images of nude students at universities increased in circulation by 950%.

“How can you have such a huge amount of information being spread so quickly?” Benevenuto asked.

By that time, WhatsApp was already forbidding users from sharing one single message more than five times. But this feature didn’t keep the app from being flooded by repeated false and/or misleading information about universities. People just found other ways to spread hoaxes in the system.

“These limitations (in the app) can improve some things, and they can have some effect,” Benevenuto noted. “(But) these public political WhatsApp groups, they can really create a backbone for misinformation to spread rapidly. We were not expecting to see how connected these groups are.”

The paradox of WhatsApp: public or private? 

Benevenuto explained that one of the particular challenges of studying and understanding the spread of misinformation on WhatsApp is that the messaging platform entails a bit of a paradox.

“Information is encrypted on WhatsApp, and conversations should be ‘private’ because of this encryption,” he said. “But if you have a conversation and this conversation spreads, and everyone forwards it, and everyone in the network gets to know that information, then it’s not private anymore.”

With no way of accessing the encrypted data, and no way of identifying the original sender of a viral message that’s been forwarded countless times, the platform has been a frustrating conundrum for fact-checkers and misinformation researchers alike.

The app, which is owned by Facebook, has the largest global reach among all messaging and social networks; it is present in 180 out of 193 countries, with a grand total of about 1.5 billion active users.

WhatsApp allows for group chats of up to 256 members. When the groups are private, new members must be added by the admin of the chat, but public groups can be joined by anyone who has access to the link or QR code.

“It’s a perfect environment for the spread of misinformation,” Benevenuto said.

The ‘backbone’ of political disinformation 

Research from the International Development Research Centre in Canada identified WhatsApp as a primary means for spreading political messages in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia.

In recent elections in India and Brazil, WhatsApp was used as an incredibly effective platform for candidates and their parties to spread propaganda and conduct political campaigning.

Riots following the recent election in Indonesia led the government to shut down use of the messaging platform, as well as Instagram and Facebook. Local reports had alleged that hoaxes and misinformation about the protests were spreading rapidly on social media.

“(Political) groups (on WhatsApp) are very (likely) to spread misinformation because they want to help their candidate, so no matter what they see, whether it’s a lie or not, they share it if it supports their cause,” Benevenuto said.

His WhatsApp Monitor keeps track of content that’s shared in over 200 public political group chats in Indonesia, over 400 in Brazil and nearly 6,000 in India.

“These groups create a sort of backbone inside the network that allows information to spread pretty fast,” Benevenuto added. “They’re (composed) of activists who share any information that arrives to them in public and private groups.”

Benevenuto also speculated that some waves of false content on the platform must be part of concerted efforts led by professionals with an agenda to disinform.

“(Throughout the election,) when one candidate did something, the next day there’d be dozens of memes being spread about them in the groups we monitored. So it looks like these groups were the second level of the information chain; the first level (was composed of) professionals engaged in creating misinformation,” he said.

After right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro claimed electoral victory in Brazil, the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S.Paulo reported that several companies that favored Bolsonaro had spent millions of dollars to “blast targeted messages on WhatsApp against his opponent, the leftist Fernando Haddad.”

A week later, Época magazine reported that paid activists and Bolsonaro supporters had potentially used illegally-acquired phone lists to send fake news blasts.

“They may have also used foreign cell phone chips to obscure their location and circumvent WhatsApp’s spamming restrictions,” Tai Nalon, the director of the Brazilian fact-checking platform Aos Fatos, wrote in The Washington Post.

Of the political images that went viral throughout the campaign, research found, only 8% were considered truthful.

Efforts to counter the spread 

WhatsApp has unveiled different strategies in response to these crises, including the limiting of forwards to 5 times per message and the labeling of forwarded messages so users know when something isn’t original.

In India, the company also announced a new feature called Tip Line, which was meant to allow users to check the veracity of rumors and forwarded items by sending them directly to a verification center, a local startup called Proto, to be classified as true or false.

Quickly after, however, Proto clarified it would not be able to verify every rumor it received, and was mostly collecting information to conduct research.

Fact-checkers have also come up with innovative solutions over the years to combat the viralization of false content on the platform.

Many organizations have their own WhatsApp account that users can message to have information verified. The Colombian fact-checking site La Silla Vacía has a “WhatsApp Detector,” which fact checks viral chain messages.

Meedan, a non-profit tech startup in San Francisco, recently launched a service that can make it easier for these fact-checkers to respond to overwhelming floods of the same requests using automation.

Teyit, a fact-checking platform in Turkey, and FactNameh, a Toronto-based Iranian fact-checking platform, both have sticker packages that can be used on WhatsApp and other messaging platforms so users can gently warn their friends and family about spreading fake items.

Some of the phrases in Teyit’s stickers include “What’s your source?” “Did you check?” and “This is false!”

Africa Check, a fact-checking site that operates in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Senegal, used the funding it won from the International Fact-Checking Network’s 2019 Fact-Forward Fund to launch What’s Crap on Whatsapp, a fact-checking audio channel that debunks viral information spread on the app and allows users to easily listen to and share episodes.

Benevenuto said he urges fact-checkers to continue to seek out false information via public and political group chats on WhatsApp, even though the deluge of content can often be hard to keep up with.

“We’d assumed that (users probably only join one group), as (so much information is sent) it’s hard to keep up with one or two,” he said. “But somehow, there were connections. Information sent in one group reached the other ones.”

“This (set-up of a private platform) with a lot of strangers together in group chats, it’s a way for activists to (mobilize), and they have the power to make information spread through the rest of the network.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this article highlighted WhatsApp’s collaboration with Proto in India, called Tip Line, but did not note that Tip Line does not actually provide users with a mechanism to verify information sent through the app. Instead, Proto collects the information to conduct research. This article has been updated to clarify this distinction.

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