WhatsApp vs. ‘fake news’: the app will limit message forwarding to avoid misinformation

Users will no longer be able to forward a message more than five times as a measure to stop the propagation of false information

Network security and ethical hacking specialists from the International Institute of Cyber Security reported that WhatsApp has decided to take some measures to prevent the dissemination of false information through its platform. From now on, users can only forward a message to other accounts for 5 times; the Facebook-owned messaging service began implementing this policy in India since the mid-2018.

Previously, WhatsApp users could forward a message up to 20 times, thanks to which it was easier to disseminate fake or inaccurate information; this decision arose as a result of a series of violent events against people who were falsely accused of engaging in criminal activities.

The company claims that it has made this decision very carefully after evaluating the results that this test has thrown in the six months it has been practicing in India, commented experts in network security.

“We believe that setting a limit on the message forwarding feature will significantly help prevent the excessive circulation of fake news”, said a spokesperson for WhatsApp. “In addition, this will help us keep WhatsApp as the first choice for instant messaging services users”.

According to experts in network security, a group chat of WhatsApp can contain up to 256 members. As a result, previously a user could have reached up to 5 120 people by sharing a message; from now on, a message can only be forwarded to 1 180 people, reducing the scope of the circulation of possible fake news. However, this measure will not prevent recipients of forwarded messages from being able to forward them again five times.

This policy comes at a time when WhatsApp, like other Facebook-owned services, are under scrutiny for their role in the propagation of propaganda, spam and news from unreliable sources. Last week, for example, Facebook announced the deletion of up to 500 pages and accounts allegedly related to the sale of false news in Central European and Eastern European countries.

However, the use of end-to-end encryption on the WhatsApp platform implies that only the participants in the conversation can read the messages, so it is virtually impossible for the company to identify fake information.

For its part, the government of India would have resorted to the creation of new laws to force companies like Facebook to monitor applications like WhatsApp in search of ‘illegal content’, which seeks to break the barrier of end-to-end encryption.