WhatsApp fights the spread of deadly fake news with recipient limit

As of July 2018, dozens of mob lynchings sparked by rumors – many about child abduction – that had been spread virally on social media had led to 33 deaths and at least 99 injured in 69 reported lynchings. The wave of violence tore through countries including Myanmar and Sri Lanka but was mostly in India.

At least 18 of those incidents were specifically linked to WhatsApp.

In an effort to limit the type of message forwarding that fuels such fake-news wildfires, in July WhatsApp launched a test in which it limited forwarding of chats to 5 people in India, where people forward more messages, photos and videos than any other country in the world.

WhatsApp also imposed a larger limit globally of 20 recipients. At the same time, WhatsApp also removed a quick-forward button next to media messages in India, and it added a feature to more clearly label forwarded messages.

Now, the private-messaging app is taking those changes, including the lower limit of 5 forwarded messages, worldwide. On Monday, Victoria Grand, vice president for policy and communications at WhatsApp, said at an event in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta that the change went into effect immediately. Reuters quoted her:

We’re imposing a limit of five messages all over the world as of today.

WhatsApp’s head of communications Carl Woog told Reuters that starting on Monday, WhatsApp would roll out an update to activate the new forward limit. Android users will receive the update first, followed by iOS.

Woog told the Guardian that the makers of the app, which has around 1.5 billion users, settled on five “because we believe this is a reasonable number to reach close friends while helping prevent abuse.”

WhatsApp users could previously forward messages to 20 individuals or groups.

According to the Guardian, WhatsApp says the changes it launched in India reduced forwarding by 25% globally and more than that in India.

Critics have said that Facebook’s steps to deal with fake news by using third-party fact checkers has actually caused fake news to migrate to other platforms – most particularly, to WhatsApp.

In an op-ed published in the New York Times in October, Brazilian researchers Cristina Tardáguila, Fabrício Benevenuto and Pablo Ortellado called on WhatsApp to keep fake news from poisoning the country’s politics by restricting forwards, broadcasts (WhatsApp allows users to send a single message to up to 256 contacts at once, enabling small groups to carry out large-scale disinformation campaigns), and to put a limit on the number of users allowed in new groups.

WhatsApp’s forwarding mechanisms have also been blamed for helping disinformation campaigns in that they strip out senders’ identities: messages forwarded to a new recipient have previously been marked as forwarded in light grey text, but besides that subtle difference, they’ve looked just like an original message sent by a contact.

Critics have said that the design of the forwarding feature up until now has enabled fake news and rumors to spread virally, with little to no accountability. That lack of accountability is compounded by the fact that, as WhatsApp itself has made clear in its ongoing court battles with governments, the company can’t see the contents of users’ chats. One of its biggest selling points – end-to-end encryption – ensures that’s the case.

India has in the past threatened to hold WhatsApp accountable for fake-news inspired violence and, like other countries before it, has called on WhatsApp to enable the “traceability” of provocative or inflammatory messages when an official request is made.