WhatsApp is one of the most popular messaging platforms in the world. With about 1.5 billion users, it’s a free way to text and place international voice and video calls.
But recently the platform, which is owned by Facebook, has faced accusations of being used to spread misinformation — with serious consequences. Last year in India, rumors spread mostly on WhatsApp led to mob killings. In the run-up to Brazil’s recent elections, misinformation and conspiracy theories also went viral on the messaging app.
WhatsApp is now limiting the number of people users can forward messages to, to five.
The problem of WhatsApp and the spread of rumors is different than the one on social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter, says Adrian Shahbaz. He’s a research director for technology and democracy at Freedom House, a nonprofit that advocates for democracy and human rights.
“The challenge,” Shahbaz says, “is how should a company like Facebook respond to a private conversation?” While Facebook can hire content moderators to bring down fake news posts and deactivate suspicious accounts, controlling misinformation on private channels is an entirely different matter.
In the end, WhatsApp opted to slow down the spread of misinformation by limiting how quickly and often it can be shared. Shahbaz says the new limitations might “make people take a step back and think about what they are writing.”
The feature to limit message forwarding was tested last year in India. It’s now being rolled out worldwide, first on Google Android, then Apple’s iOS.
WhatsApp “carefully evaluated this test and listened to user feedback over a six-month period,” a company spokesperson told NPR. “The forward limit significantly reduced forwarded messages around the world. We’ll continue to listen to user feedback about their experience, and over time, look for new ways of addressing viral content.”
She said the move is not just about curbing the spread of misinformation. It’s also about curbing more digitally enthusiastic friends and family members on the app. Among many WhatsApp users, the culture of group chats has become both somewhat of a joke and a headache, with frequent complaints about being bombarded by messages and forwards from overly zealous users.
This seems to be especially the case in India: Google researchers recently found that smartphone users in India run out of space often, due to an overabundance of “Good Morning” messages.
“We have to limit that behavior,” the WhatsApp spokesperson said.