WhatsApp Claims Fake News Success

John Lister's picture

Measures to stop misinformation spreading on messaging service WhatsApp appear to be making a difference. The Facebook-owned business says its seen fewer "highly forwarded messages".

A couple of weeks back, WhatsApp took action after fears it was being used to spread bogus and potentially dangerous claims about COVID-19. One big worry was that people who saw a message in one group chat would forward it to multiple other group chats, quickly increasing the number of people who saw it.

Extra Niggle May Spark Rethink

The changes involved any message that had been forwarded at least five times.

Such messages are now highlighted with a special "double arrow" icon that indicates the content was originally written by somebody in the chat group. That's a big concern as dubious claims may seem more believable when people mistakenly believe they originate with somebody they know.

The second change is that users can now only forward a message to one group at a time. The hope is that this small degree of extra effort may make them think twice about whether it's reliable enough to pass on.

Now WhatsApp says that "globally there has been a 70% reduction in the number of highly forwarded messages", meaning ones forwarded at least five times. (Source: thenextweb.com)

Hard To Isolate Cause And Effect

It doesn't appear there's enough detail right now to be certain whether the change is because the icon is making people more skeptical about claims, or if the restriction on mass-forwarding is what's changing behavior.

One key WhatsApp feature is that all messages are encrypted as they pass from sender to recipient. That limits how much insight the company can get into the success or otherwise of its policies. For example, it's not possible to scan a database of messages to see if people have become more likely to call out misinformation.

The BBC notes that the apparent fall in mass forwarding might be for reasons other than WhatsApp's own changes. For example, it's possible that the COVID-19 pandemic has been running long enough that some more outlandish early misinformation has demonstrably proven false over time, making people less trusting of online claims. (Source: bbc.co.uk)

What's Your Opinion?

Do you think the drop in highly-forwarded messages is significant? Should WhatsApp go further to tackle the problem? Is misinformation more of a technical or a societal problem?

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