Explained: WhatsApp limits number of forwards per message in fight against fake news

In a bid to curb the spread of misinformation that has led to over 30 mob lynchings in India alone, WhatsApp is now limiting the number of times a user can forward a message in one go, to five.

With this feature, WhatsApp aims to slow down the viral dissemination of information, false and otherwise, by limiting how quickly and often it can be shared.

This follows in the wake of another recent report that claimed that the Facebook-owned app had played host to fake news campaigns and conspiracy theories in several other countries including Brazil, which recently went to polls, Pakistan and Mexico.

About the feature

This feature, tested last year in India, is now being rolled out worldwide, first on Android devices, and then on iOS. The limitations are expected to make people take a step back and think about what they are writing and forwarding.

WhatsApp carefully tested the new global cap on forwarded messages and listened to user feedback over a six-month period, initially limiting messages to being forwarded 20 times last July while implementing the five-time forwarding limit for evaluation in India. WhatsApp groupscan contain up to 256 people.

“The forward limit significantly reduced forwarded messages around the world. We’ll continue to listen to user feedback about their experience, and over time, look for new ways of addressing viral content,” WhatsApp said in its updated blog post on Monday.

Unlike doctored campaigns on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, the messages on WhatsApp are private and encrypted which has made it difficult for the company to trace where the fake inflammatory messages originate, or moderate what’s happening and intervene.

What happened last year

Since last April, all sorts of manufactured news made its way into the hands of gullible and irresponsible users, who shared them over the messaging platform leading to mob violence and lynchings across the country, notably in Telangana, Assam, Maharashtra and Karnataka.

Unconfirmed about kidnapping rackets, thieves and sexual predators formed the gist of it and led to the deaths of several innocent men and women last summer. In Tamil Nadu, a mentally unstable man was beaten up based on false suspicion fed by WhatsApp . A transgender begging around Telangana was killed by the mob on similar grounds. In June, a 45-year-old woman hailing from a nomadic tribe in Rajasthan was confused for a child abductor and brutally lynched in Gujarat.

The spate of lynchings ultimately roused the government (and international media) to take stock of the situation. Law enforcement authorities later discovered that the forwarded messages had been pieced together with photographs from news reports on Syria and Rohingya refugee camps, and tried to dissuade people from acting on the basis of such messages.

Unable to come up with a comprehensive solution to the fake news menace, the government then warned WhatsApp that it will treat the messaging platform as an abettor of propagation and legal consequences will follow if adequate checks are not in place.

The C issued an ultimatum for WhatsApp to get to the bottom of while digital armies to infiltrate group chats and locate potential troublemakers. A few months later, BBC came out with a report which pegged the fake news menace to surging nationalism.

Meanwhile, the tech company tried forwards as “suspicious”, flagging fake news, awareness campaigns, and even appointed a grievance officer to tackle the issue which, despite efforts, continued to snowball. The change in forwarding policy is seen as the latest effort by the tech giant to curb the spread of misinformation. 

Also limits over-zealous behaviour

This move will not only help the messaging giant salvage the deteriorating situation in but also deter digitally enthusiastic friends and relatives from partaking in the annoying forward culture, that has become the butt of many jokes.

Users have brought up this culture of bombarding group chats with forwarded messages in frequent complaints, while Google researchers recently found that smartphone users in India often run out of space due to an overabundance of “Good Morning” messages.

WhatsApp is one of the most popular messaging platforms in the world. With about 1.5 billion users, it’s a free messaging service that even allows international voice and video calls. India is notably its biggest market with 200 million users availing the easy mobility of information that it offers. The subcontinent is also home to the highest number of forwarded messages, photos and videos, exceeding every other country’s, WhatsApp says. 

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius

Fake News in IndiaWhatsApp