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WhatsApp cracks down on coronavirus misinformation with stricter forward limits

WhatsApp is imposing a new forward limit to stem the tide of coronavirus misinformation on its platform. The Facebook-owned messaging app, which hosts over 2 billion users worldwide, said starting on Tuesday, April 7, that a message that has been already shared five times or over will only be allowed to be forwarded to one person or group at a time.

Before, users had the ability to forward any message to five chats at a time — a restriction which WhatsApp claims led to a 25% decrease in message forwards globally. With this new update, once you reach that threshold, an additional rule will come into effect that will restrict you from forwarding that message to more than one contact or group.

“In recent weeks, people have also used WhatsApp to organize public moments of support for frontline health workers. However, 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. We believe it’s important to slow the spread of these messages down to keep WhatsApp a place for personal conversation,” WhatsApp wrote in a blog post.

In addition to this new forward limit, WhatsApp is testing a way for users to look up frequently forwarded messages on Google by tapping a little magnifying glass option beside them. The feature will enable users to sift through the web and instantly pull up matching web results to verify the information. At the moment, it’s only available on the beta version of the messaging app’s Android client.

It has also partnered with the World Health Organization to launch a coronavirus helpline and committed to donate a million dollars to Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN).

The new limit will likely stymie the spread of viral forwards to an extent. However, several loopholes still remain for malicious actors to exploit. In the past, people have been found misusing WhatsApp’s broadcast list feature, which lets you send a message to a maximum of 256 contacts, for pushing propaganda.

Plus, political groups are known to peddle misinformation by setting up WhatsApp accounts on multiple devices and building a chain of large-scale groups. However, it’s worth noting WhatsApp has an automated check in place that blocks such bulk senders, and as per a white paper it published, bans 2 million accounts every month.

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