WhatsApp has introduced major new changes that are intended to stop people from spreading messages so easily.
The update is intended to stop the spread of false stories, bad advice and misinformation about the coronavirus outbreak as well as more generally.
The feature might initially appear strange for a social network, which usually encourage easy ways of forwarding on messages and increase the reach of more popular posts.
But WhatsApp has said the feature is specifically intended to “constrain virality”, to keep the app “personal and private” as well as looking to slow the spread of hoaxes and rumours.
What do the new rules mean?
In short, the feature is intended to make it harder to forward messages that have already been forwarded multiple times. It does that by first marking out messages that have been repeatedly forwarded: if something has been sent on five time, two small arrows are attached to message and are shown to anyone who receives it. (This change is not new.)
Now, those messages can only be forwarded on to one person at a time, rather than five. In practise, that will make it much more difficult and slower to pass on messages en masse – with the hope that people will think before doing so.
WhatsApp is also testing a feature that would allow people who receive those messages to easily click into a web search for the message itself. That would allow for easy research of anything that is forwarded on, allowing people to check whether something is true before circulating it.
Why have they been introduced?
WhatsApp is concerned about the fact that messages can be spread far and wide on its platform. What’s more, because WhatsApp chats are encrypted and so the company is unable to read them, it is harder to keep up with what is being shared on the site.
So the company is aiming to “constrain virality”, in its words, by making it harder for messages to spread quickly across the platform.
It hopes those changes stop the spread of misinformation and encourage people to spread more meaningful messages.
It also said that the feature was intended to make the app more “personal and private”, noting that people can feel overwhelmed by receiving large numbers of forwarded messages.
What else is WhatsApp doing to stop the spread of hoaxes and rumours?
WhatsApp users have spread a host of misinformation, usually by well-meaning people who are sent claims and believe that sending them on will help the people who are receiving them.
Popular – but false – stories like the “Martinelli” video and the “dance of the pope” are examples of stories that sound troubling, and so encourage users to pass them on in an attempt to keep their friends and family safe. Others are much more malevolent, such as the spread of messages in India that led to horrific and violent mob attacks.
In response to such problems, WhatsApp has already introduced changes to message forwarding such as the arrows and the reduction of the maximum people a single message can be sent onto down to five. It is also banning accounts for sending bulk and automated messages.
With coronavirus misinformation specifically, it says that it has been working with NGOs and governments, such as the Wrold Health Organisation, to help spread accurate information. That has meant introducing chatbots for people to speak to, and donating money to fact checkers. (H/T Independent)