WhatsApp Tackles Misinformation With New Forwarding Limits
In a seemingly counterintuitive move, Facebook aims to tackle misinformation by limiting the spread of messaging on its WhatsApp platform.
AppAnnie’s “State of Mobile” report revealed a staggering figure this week: in late 2018, WhatsApp, the encrypted messaging app employed worldwide for free calling and messaging, surpassed Facebook as the most heavily used Facebook-owned property worldwide. For advertisers seeking a wide reach, this is an important statistic. But with such heavy use, Facebook has learned, some unique challenges.
Although misinformation is a scourge on most social media platforms, the consequences of it on WhatsApp have proven the most dangerous. False and conspiratorial stories spread on the platform played a significant role in Brazil’s elections in October 2018, and a number of mob killings and attacks in India, sparked by a number of incorrect stories about child kidnappings. The private nature of these messages, preventing intervention from moderators or others who could correct the falsehoods, has created a culture of sharing that has proven too dangerous to ignore.
To combat the outsized impact these falsehoods are having on the platform – and the world they exist in – WhatsApp is instituting a forward limit for messages. Starting today, messages on the platform will only be able to be forwarded five times. A previous limit of twenty forwards proved ineffective, and so the company reduced it to five – first, in tests in India, and now worldwide. At first glance, it might seem counterintuitive for a socially oriented platform to reduce the volume and reach of messages sent. The goal? To limit the number of people seeing any potentially misleading or incorrect reports.
The measure isn’t one without its own challenges- messages forwarded in groups count as “one” forward, and WhatsApp groups can host up to 256 people. This means that even a message limited to five forwards could reach 13,000 people before it is cut off. Further, the company hasn’t released any details about how effective the reduction in forwards concretely affects misinformation. But a limit in reach is a start, and hopefully one that makes an impact on community discourse.
The effort joins the partial deployment of Facebook Petitions, a new feature on the platform designed to simplify petitioning government officials and community organizations for change, in Facebook’s recent measures to better the world they exist in. This community organizing feature has already drawn its own questions and criticisms – namely, surrounding what people can organize for or against – but represents a continued effort by Facebook as a larger organization to bring people together for the right reasons.
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