WhatsApp limits message forwarding in response to lynchings

Don’t allow these persons in [the] red car to escape. They are child kidnappers.

As The Indian Express reported earlier this month, that message was sent to WhatsApp groups, accompanied by a video of four men distributing chocolates to schoolchildren.

Within 30 minutes, one of the men – 32-year-old Mohammed Azam Ahmed, a software engineer with Accenture in Hyderabad – had been lynched. His three companions were seriously injured, one police inspector had his leg broken, and five other policemen who were trying to protect the victims suffered head injuries caused by a rock-throwing village mob.

It was only the most recent event in a fake-news crisis that’s seized India, which in recent months has seen dozens of mob lynchings sparked by rumors that have spread virally on social media. According to Business-Standard, over the past 18 months, there have been 33 people killed and at least 99 injured in 69 reported lynchings.

At least 18 of these incidents have been specifically linked to WhatsApp.

On Thursday, the Facebook-owned company announced that it’s launching a test to limit the type of message forwarding that’s fueling the fake-news wildfire – one that has been most particularly violent in India, but has also cost dozens of lives in countries including Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

WhatsApp said in a blog post that it’s going to limit forwarding to everyone using WhatsApp. The limit will be most restrictive in India, where people forward more messages, photos and videos than any other country in the world, WhatsApp said. In India, it’s going to test a lower limit of 5 chats at once and will also remove a quick-forward button next to media messages.

Hopefully, this will help bring the free, encrypted messaging app back to what it started as, WhatsApp said: a “simple, secure and reliable way to communicate with family and friends.”

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.

This isn’t the first step that WhatsApp has taken to fight the consequences of fake news in India. A week earlier, WhatsApp had published full-page advertisements in leading Indian newspapers in an effort to advise people how to spot false information.


Police claimed to have traced the WhatsApp message that resulted in the recent death of Mohammed Azam Ahmed. They say it came from a farmer who was the administrator of some half a dozen WhatsApp groups. He is one of 30 or so people who’ve been arrested so far.

The Indian Express quoted Dilip Sagar, Circle Police Inspector (CPI) of Kamalnagar Circle:

[The farmer] sent this provocative message – that these men are child kidnappers and should not be spared – to WhatsApp groups in Murki and surrounding villages, which triggered the chase and the attack on the men. His message instigated the attack.

Presumably the police have the phone the message was sent from, or one of the phones that received it, because, as WhatsApp itself has made clear in its ongoing court battles with governments, the company itself can’t see the contents of users’ chats. One of its biggest selling points – end-to-end encryption – ensures that’s the case.

That hasn’t stopped countries from trying to ban encrypted messaging apps such as WhatsApp, or to suggest planting backdoors into them.

True to form, India is threatening to hold WhatsApp accountable for the fake-news inspired violence. Unimpressed by WhatsApp’s announcement about drastically cutting back on the ability to forward messages, India’s information technology ministry on Thursday issued a statement saying that WhatsApp could face legal action over the issue.

Khaleej Times quoted the statement:

Rampant circulation of irresponsible messages in large volumes on their platform have not been addressed adequately by WhatsApp. When rumours and fake news get propagated by mischief-mongers, the medium used for such propagation cannot evade responsibility and accountability.

If [WhatsApp] remain mute spectators they are liable to be treated as abettors and thereafter face consequent legal action.

As other countries before it, India’s information technology ministry also called on WhatsApp to enable the “traceability” of provocative or inflammatory messages when an official request is made.

At the time of writing WhatsApp hadn’t issued a statement about the potential threat of legal action.