WhatsApp’s message limit isn’t enough to halt the spread of fake news

A limit on forwarding messages has been extended from India to the rest of the world, but more needs to be done by all parties

This post first appeared on the NewScientist on February 7, 2019

WhatsApp took out adverts in India in a bid to counter fake news
Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images

In the US and Europe, Facebook stands accused of facilitating the spread of propaganda and fake news. In India, Facebook’s subsidiary WhatsApp is under the same pressure, charged with the spread of misinformation from political parties, and more dangerous material: last year, at least 35 people in India were killed by violent mobs incited by rumours of child abduction spread through WhatsApp.

How do we fight back? Following an outcry, and under government pressure in its biggest market, WhatsApp limited users in India to forwarding a single message just five times. Now the company has rolled out this limit globally.

The WhatsApp message limit came about after the Indian Information Technology minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, threatened WhatsApp and other social media platforms with abetment to violence if they didn’t take adequate and prompt action in fighting the spread of misinformation.

Around 10 million people are connecting to the internet in India every month and, for many, it is their first interaction with people outside their immediate community and, more significantly, with mass media. With it, they encountered stories of child snatchers prowling the area, a common rumour. These were forwarded onto others because people believed them, and were scared. The app made it possible for the messages to spread far and wide in a very short time. As a result, angry mobs killed dozens of innocent men and women.

WhatsApp forwards

Whether limiting the number of contacts a message can be forwarded to is useful or not in WhatsApp’s fight against fake news is still up for debate. In the six months since this feature was rolled out in India, there are mixed reports of its success. The number of WhatsApp forwards has declined in India since the change was introduced, and representatives of various political parties have admitted that the limit on forwarding has affected their reach.

The effectiveness of WhatsApp’s change depends on the kind of misinformation we are aiming for it to curb. In terms of clickbaity stories that demand to be shared – even when their provenance is doubtful – the change has made the forwarding process more cumbersome and time-consuming, limiting their spread. That holds some promise in a world beset by viral “fake news”.

But concerted disinformation campaigns are likely to live on. Various political parties in India are already finding workarounds, including moving to other popular platforms and adding more people to their teams to maintain the scale.

A message forwarding limit will undoubtedly need to be coupled with other efforts. In meetings with senior WhatsApp officials, the Indian government asked the company to add a mechanism that could reveal the identity and location of a message’s author. Admirably, the company defended its users, and didn’t loosen the end-to-end encryption that protects user privacy and security.

There is a need for more public information from government agencies and other sources to counter scare stories on WhatsApp and other social media platforms. Still, it is likely that by limiting the speed at which these rumours can spread, the truth has been able to catch up in time to save lives.

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