WhatsApp clamps down on bulk message forwarding to discourage spreading fake news

In an effort to discourage people from spreading misinformation regarding the coronavirus, COVID-19 and other fake news, Facebook-owned WhatsApp messaging service yesterday announced new measures to clamp down further on bulk message forwarding.

WhatsApp now has a new limit so that messages can only be forwarded to one chat at a time, which is one-fifth the previous limit of five chats, imposed in 2019. Moreover, the Facebook-owned messaging platform is working directly with the World Health Organization and 20+ national health ministries to curb fake news and promote accurate information.

From the announcement:

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. We believe it’s important to slow the spread of these messages down to keep WhatsApp a place for personal conversation.

The new limit should definitely help discourage the dissemination of disinformation, such as that coronavirus is related to 5G wireless networks, which has resulted in the vandalization of more than twenty phone masts in the United Kingdom in the past week.

However, as The Guardian reports, the change won’t completely prevent widespread forwarding because anyone on WhatsApp can forward a single message as many times as they want by repeatedly tapping the Forward button in the app.

Because of the encryption WhatsApp uses, the company cannot see the contents of messages sent on its platform. That prevents it from employing the same moderation strategies as Facebook or Twitter, which can take down harmful content that is flagged.

This is in addition to last year’s double-arrow icon which automatically appears next to messages that have been forwarded many times, indicating they didn’t originate from a close contact. The company claims the previous limits of five chats on forwarded messages to constrain virality led to a 25 percent decrease in message forwards globally at the time.