In its latest salvo in the fight to prevent the spread of fake news, messaging application WhatsApp announced that it would be limiting the number of people each user can forward messages to.
On Monday, January 20, Victoria Grand, WhatsApp’s vice president for policy and communications, announced this new development at an event in Jakarta, Indonesia. The company said that it had tested forwarding limits in the country for six months before coming to a decision.
Grand said, “We’re imposing a limit of five messages all over the world as of today,” as part of the company’s endeavor to fight “misinformation and rumors.”
In India, the number of messages that can be forwarded was already limited to 5 by last July, after a series of mob lynchings were proved to be connected to messages on WhatsApp that had spread around various groups.
The Indian government warned India that the company could face legal consequences if it failed to take action. India is WhatsApp’s largest market since there are 200 million users around the country.
According to WhatsApp, Indian users “forward more messages, photos, and videos, than any other country in the world.” Several of the messages that allegedly sparked the violence that ensued had been forwarded to WhatsApp groups of more than one hundred members.
In limiting the number of people that a message can be forwarded to, WhatsApp said that it hoped messages would be forwarded less frequently, with this measure as well as with the removal of the “quick forward button” for photos and videos.
The measure, however, hardly prevents the receiver from forwarding messages to five other contacts.
Previous to yesterday’s announcement in Indonesia, the users of the app could forward messages to as many as 20 groups or contacts.
WhatsApp claims “The forward limit significantly reduced forwarded messages around the world,” according to a representative, which would “help keep WhatsApp focused on private messaging with close contacts. We’ll continue to listen to user feedback about their experience, and over time, look for new ways of addressing viral content.”
The total number of members that each WhatsApp group can have is 256. This means that the number of people that one user can forward a message to is now 1,280 rather than 5,120 before the forward limit was imposed. But the 1,280 can still forward the message to 5 other contacts or groups.
Social media and messaging applications are now being watched closely in relation to the spread of fake news, which has resulted in 500 accounts removed on Facebook last week. These accounts reportedly helped spread falsehoods and misinformation online in several parts of the world.
WhatsApp has come under fire in Brazil as well. Populist candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who won the presidential election last year, is being accused of spreading lies about his opponent through the app.
While WhatsApp, which belongs to Facebook Inc, is endeavoring to spot falsehoods in the messages sent from one user or group to another, the application employs end-to-end encryption, which means that messages can only be viewed and read by senders and receivers themselves.
However, at the end of 2018, the Indian government was looking at altering the law in such a way that Facebook would be forced to police WhatsApp for unlawful” content, which would force a change in the encryption technology the company is using.
This is not the first time social media has influenced real-time events. Social media played a significant role in the Arab Spring, protests and demonstrations in the Middle East and North Africa between 2010 and 2012, to the point that the uprisings were alternatively called the “Twitter” or “Facebook revolutions.”