Facebook announced an interesting new limitation to WhatsApp with the clear goal of curbing the spread of false information related to COVID-19.
While it’s difficult to dispute the benefits of having a messaging application with such a widespread user base, it can also be a problem in times of trouble. On the one hand, authorities, governments and institutions, including the World Health Organization and over 20 national health ministries, have used the service to send mass messages, helping people stay up to date and informed.
On the other hand, the messaging platform is also used to spread false information, hoaxes and myths about the COVID-19 pandemic. Since WhatsApp can’t read the messages itself, as would happen on a social network, and determine that a message is false or misleading, the developer can curb the spread by limiting the number of contacts that can be reached with the forward function.
“Last year we introduced users to the concept of messages that have been forwarded many times,” states the company on its blog. “These messages are labeled with double arrows to indicate they did not originate from a close contact. In effect, these messages are less personal compared to typical messages sent on WhatsApp. We are now introducing a limit so that these messages can only be forwarded to one chat at a time.”
It’s a more discriminating action than simply limiting the forward function to a single contact for everyone, because people also want to forward innocuous and funny cat pictures, and there’s no reason they should be blocked.
A limit set to forwarding messages to at most five contacts was initially launched in India, and then was implemented at a global level, drastically reducing the viral nature of mass messages.