Coronavirus: WhatsApp To Limit Forwarding To Slow Spread Of Fake News

Facebook-owned WhatsApp is to impose a strict new limit on message forwarding, as it seeks to slow the spread of fake news.

The app made the announcement in a blog post, and said it was taking the measures after seeing “a significant increase in the amount of forwarding” during the global Coronavirus pandemic.

It is seeking to slow the spread of fake news. YouTube earlier this week had banned all conspiracy theory videos that falsely link 5G networks to the spread of Coronavirus.

Foolish celebrities

That came after at least 20 mobile phone masts across the UK were torched or otherwise vandalised since Thursday, the Guardian newspaper reported earlier this week.

The damaged mobile phones masts were reportedly clustered mostly around Liverpool and the West Midlands.

Matters were not helped by ill-informed celebrities who have highlighted the false link between 5G and Coronavirus.

Last month an American singer/songwriter claimed 5G networks were to blame for the start of the Coronavirus pandemic. She subsequently retracted her claims.

But other celebrities have jumped on the bandwagon, including Amanda Holden who tweeted a link to an anti-5G petition to her almost 2 million followers.

Boxer Amir Khan, actor Woody Harrelson, and even conspiracy theorist David Icke have published similar claims.

Forwarding restriction

But foolish celebrities aside, WhatsApp is now planning to take measures to clamp down on the forwarding of messages, typically allowed via the double arrows symbol in the app.

“With billions of people unable to see their friends and family in person due to COVID-19, people are relying on WhatsApp more than ever to communicate,” WhatsApp said in the blog post.

“As a private messaging service, we’ve taken several steps over the years to help keep conversations intimate,” said WhatsApp said. “For example, we previously set limits on forwarded messages to constrain virality. At the time, we saw a 25 percent decrease in total message forwards globally.”

WhatsApp said that forwarding was not all bad, and that it was useful sending helpful information, funny videos, memes, and reflections or prayers.

But some people are using the feature to spread fake news and disinformation.

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

It should be remembered that due to encryption, WhatsApp cannot see the contents of messages. So it doesn’t have the takedown ability of platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, which can actively flag content deemed harmful or false.

WhatsApp has gradually lowered the number of users a person can forward a message to.

Until 2018 for instance, users had been able to forward a message to 250 groups at once, the Guardian newspaper reported.

That was reduced to 20 in 2018, five in 2019 and one now.

WhatsApp says those measures reduced message forwarding by 25 percent globally.

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Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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