WhatsApp coronavirus hoaxes prompt tighter limits on forwarding

The increasing number of WhatsApp coronavirus hoax messages has prompted the company to clamp down further on the mindless forwarding of messages …

The company first introduced message-forwarding limits back in 2018, when false rape and child abduction claims led to violence in India. At that time, WhatsApp limited message forwarding to no more than five people in India, and no more than 20 people elsewhere. A year later, the five-person limit was imposed worldwide.

The latest limit, reported by The Guardian, limits oft-forwarded messages to being forwarded to a single person at a time. As the paper notes, this doesn’t prevent mass-distribution, but does discourage it.

If a user receives a frequently forwarded message – one which has been forwarded more than five times – under the new curbs, they will only be able to send it on to a single chat at a time. That is one fifth the previous limit of five chats, imposed in 2019.

The change does not completely prevent widespread forwarding, since ultimately a message can be passed on however many times a user is happy to hit the forward button.

But by inserting friction into the process, the company hopes to slow some of the most viral messages on its platform, such as the widely spread falsehood that coronavirus is related to 5G. That claim has led to the vandalisation of more than 20 phone masts in the past week.

While you might think a better approach would be to block or flag the dissemination of disinformation in the first place, that isn’t an option given that WhatsApp uses end-to-end encryption. This means that the company has no way to see the content of any messages. Digital fingerprints enable WhatsApp to track the number of times that a message has been forwarded, even though it can’t read the message itself.

WhatsApp says that its previous restriction led to a 25% fall in message-forwarding. This stricter limit will hopefully lead to a further reduction in WhatsApp coronavirus hoaxes.

You can play your own part by always fact-checking messages before forwarding or sharing on social media. The WHO and CDC websites are good places to check coronavirus-related claims, while Snopes is an excellent check for these and other hoaxes.

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