WhatsApp to limit forwarded messages to fight viral fake news

The WhatsApp mobile messaging service owned by Facebook said it has more than two million users as it reaffirmed its commitment to strong encryption. (AFP/File / Lionel BONAVENTURE)

Whatsapp is finally cracking down on fake viral messages that spread made-up rumours about the pandemic.

The Facebook-owned service will limit everyone’s ability to send “highly forwarded” messages. From now on, we’ll only be able to share such messages or videos with one person or group at a time, instead of five at a time.

The move is to “slow the spread of misinformation”, a Whatsapp Ireland spokeswoman said.

“We believe it’s important to slow the spread of these messages. We’ve seen a significant increase in the amount of forwarding which users have told us can feel overwhelming and can contribute to the spread of misinformation.”

Three weeks ago, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had to appeal to the nation to stop forwarding unfounded rumours related to Covid-19 measures on Whatsapp.

“These messages are scaring and confusing people and causing real damage,” he said. “Please get your info from official, trusted sources.”

Whatsapp messages are private and encrypted, meaning that Facebook — which owns Whatsapp — cannot see what is being sent.

However, it can detect when a message has been forwarded many times.

Previous misinformation on Whatsapp in Ireland included a mass-circulated Whatsapp message claimed that an Irish hospital was treating young patients for Covid-19 whose symptoms were exacerbated by taking anti-inflammatory drugs. The message was disowned by the hospital and medical authorities.

Other fake Whatsapp messages claimed that army officials were to take to the streets to enforce the lockdown.

Whatsapp messages are encrypted, meaning the company cannot monitor what is being said in them. However, it does use some technology in other ways to limit it virality.

It also says that it has ‘advanced machine learning technology’ which identifies and bans accounts engaging in bulk or automated messaging, claiming that it bans two million accounts from WhatsApp per month, 75 percent of them without a recent user report. – Source: Irish Times