As one of the leading messaging apps on the planet, WhatsApp has a duty to combat the spread of misinformation and fake news where possible. It’s part of parent company Meta’s promise to fight this digital battle in a way it should have done a while back, but while it’s playing catch up at this stage, some progress is better than no progress, right? So, with the rise in misinformation over the past years, from US elections to COVID-19 to the Ukraine-Russia war, here’s what WhatsApp’s new feature will do.
Putting added limits to forwarding
A couple of years ago WhatsApp put the brakes on how many chats a user can forward a message to, limiting the total to five at a time. Now, however, WhatsApp users won’t be allowed to forward messages already forwarded to more than one group chat on Android, with Apple devices having already received this update last week. What this does is reduce the number of people receiving possible fake news, although message originators won’t have any of these limits.
The rules however will apply to any messages already forwarded to you, and studies have shown that it is actually effective. Although Facebook remains the main platform for misinformation and fake news, there is evidence of coordinated efforts on image- and video-sharing platforms such as Instagram and YouTube, and WhatsApp is no stranger, unfortunately. How effective is the strategy overall though?
In a study conducted by Brazil’s Federal University of Minas Gerais and MIT, 80% of images shared in political group chats (normally by people affiliated with political parties), lasted no more than two days. However, there were some that continued to circulate even until two months after the original share took place. The study goes on to show that WhatsApp is a highly-dynamic network and although content can be shared quickly, it’s mostly short-lived and it’s difficult for old content to be re-shared unless it goes through a revival where someone shares it again as a second original, so to say, rather than someone digging it up from the archives.
So does WhatsApp’s strategy work?
Yes and no. There’s certainly a delay in the spreading of messages of any nature because instead of one contact sharing a news item to an entire contact book, it would need to go from group to group one by one, and it also depends on the virality of the content itself. Most misinformation campaigns are led by professionals, so slowing down “hot” accounts was suggested as one option for further limiting misinformation spread, especially during election season, but that’s going to be incredibly tough too.
At the end of the day, it’s up to the person sharing the information to adequately check the source and cross-reference with other news sites to see if what they’re about to share is actually accurate, or if it’s just propaganda or fake news.