Fact-checkers cautiously optimistic about WhatsApp’s new kind of social distancing

April 9, 2020
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

While fact-checkers around the world are taking a wait-and-see approach to WhatsApp’s latest effort to fight coronavirus misinformation, academics say it has the potential to drastically slow the spread of misinformation.

The company announced in a blog post Tuesday that its 2 billion users will only be allowed to forward messages to one user at a time as opposed to the previous five at-a-time policy. The policy went into effect Tuesday in the United States and will roll out globally in the next few days.

Fact-checkers overwhelmed with the sheer amount of misinformation about  COVID-19 were appreciative, but couldn’t say how it might affect their work.

“Any measure taken to reduce misinformation is always welcome,” said Joaquín Ortega, head of content for the Spanish fact-checking network Newtral.es. He said the number of messages Newtral.es is getting requesting coronavirus fact-checks is 10 times the network’s average.

“I think it could be somewhat effective in limiting the speed of the diffusion, if maybe not the spread itself,” said Giovanni Zagni, director of the Italian fact-checking network Facta. Zagni’s organization opened a dedicated WhatsApp account last Thursday to fight misinformation and it has received more than a thousand messages requesting fact-checks.

On March 18, the IFCN received a $1 million donation from WhatsApp to support organizations worldwide and expand the battle against COVID-19 related misinformation. Still some fact-checkers expressed doubts about how effective the company’s move would be.

“One flaw about this new limitation is that the messages can still be forwarded to large groups which can hold 256 people,” said Uzair Rizvi, a reporter for Agence France Presse in India and South Asia.

In an email, WhatsApp Director of Communication Carl Woog said the company takes aggressive measures to prevent users from developing an audience on the platform.

“We ban 2 million accounts per month for bulk or automated messages,” Woog wrote. He added that the company’s previous effort to limit forwarding to five people had resulted in a 25 percent drop in the number of messages forwarded globally.

Fabricio Benevenuto, an associate professor of computer science at Brazil’s Federal University at Minas Gerais, was part of a team that studied the impact of WhatsApp’s previous efforts to limit forwarded messages. His group used epidemiological models similar to those used by the World Health Organization to simulate and track the virality of messages.

“What we noted is mainly that the limitation of five (forwards) which was implemented by WhatsApp was good… but when the information has a very viral nature, that content will reach the entire network quickly,” Benevenuto said.   Messages about false coronavirus cures have been particularly viral as users grasp for information to protect themselves.

Benevenuto reiterated, though, that while not effective in all cases, the models showed a measurable slowing in the spread of misinformation when WhatsApp limited forwarding to only five users. He expects to see an even greater impact now that the company is limiting forwarding to one user.

“It’s similar to the isolation we see in people all over the world who are trying to reduce the amount of the spread of coronavirus,” Benevenuto said.  Benevenuto believes the new limit will allow fact-checkers to address claims more quickly.

“Delay is good, because it gives fact-checkers more time to come up with a vaccine,” Benevenuto said. He noted that in limiting message forwarding, WhatsApp potentially could shrink its user base.

“But they are making something to reduce misinformation, and I really appreciated this move from WhatsApp,” Benevenuto said.

Harrison Mantas is a reporter for the International Fact-Checking Network covering the wide world of misinformation. Reach him at hmantas@poynter.org or on Twitter at @HarrisonMantas.