WhatsApp Attempts to Slow Spread of Fake News

John Lister's picture

A messaging service owned by Facebook is to change its policies to reduce the risk of people passing on bogus information. The WhatsApp changes follow a "significant increase" in forwarded messages since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

WhatsApp lets users form and join multiple chat groups: for example, one for work colleagues, one for personal friends and one for neighbors. One key feature is that it's relatively simple to forward a message from one group to another, which means information can spread rapidly.

That's particularly problematic when it comes to false and even dangerous information. Because each group's discussions are restricted to its members, it's difficult for fact checking groups to track the spread of bogus info in the same way as they can do with more public social media.

Widely Shared Messages Highlighted

Some of the untrue information that is known to have spread on WhatsApp about the coronavirus could risk provoking civil disruption or undermining public health efforts.

The initial changes will be to any message that has been forwarded at least five times. These messages will now be highlighted with a new double arrow icon designed to alert users that it wasn't originally written by any of their immediate contacts. (Source: standard.co.uk)

There will also be a block on users automatically forwarding such messages to multiple groups in one go. Instead, the user will have to manually select and confirm each time they want to forward a message to a group. The idea here is to disrupt the forwarding just enough that they slow down and think about the accuracy and importance of the message. (Source: bbc.co.uk)

Mob Fury Whipped Up By Fake Messages

Another feature currently in testing is to display a magnifying glass icon next to messages that have been forwarded multiple times.

If the user taps the icon, WhatsApp will analyze the content and then link to authoritative news reports and sources of information about the subject in question. In some cases, that could include links to pieces debunking false claims made in the message.

WhatsApp was already under pressure to tackle rapidly spreading false information about several people were attacked by mobs in India after false messages circulated linking them to child kidnappings.

What's Your Opinion?

Is this a smart move by WhatsApp? Is it possible to balance such efforts against the rights of users to communicate freely? Could - and should - social media companies take other steps to limit the spread of false information?

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