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WhatsApp should disable message forwarding if it wants to fight misinformation

WhatsApp
WhatsApp (Image credit: Apoorva Bhardwaj / Android Central)

WhatsApp has over 2 billion users globally, and over a quarter of those — just over 500 million — are from India alone. Affordable cellular data services combined with an influx of decent budget phones allowed WhatsApp to thrive, and usage of the Facebook-owned platform is ubiquitous across the country.

All of my friends are on the platform, and I get updates on everything from credit card statements from my bank, flight information from my airline, and even Netflix recommendations directly on WhatsApp. The service has even replaced traditional news outlets in parts of India, with people signing up to get news updates directly from WhatsApp groups — even paying a fee for access to these groups.

WhatsApp changed how we communicate, but it is increasingly being used as a tool to spread misinformation.

It's fair to say that WhatsApp has had a profound impact on Indian culture, and as is often the case with any messaging service that has such a sizeable install base, there are a lot of bad actors spreading misinformation on the platform. It's easy to share misinformation on WhatsApp groups; there's no way to verify the authenticity of a post, there's no public link for groups, or a reliable way to trace the origin of a fake message. When you combine all of that and the fact that WhatsApp has a message forwarding feature that makes it easy to share fake news to dozens of groups at once, it's easy to see why there's so much misinformation on the platform.

Falsified messages around child abduction and organ harvesting on the platform culminated in the deaths of seven people in 2017, and WhatsApp forwards have been linked to over two dozen fatalities over the last three years.

WhatsApp's message forwarding has turned out to be a useful conduit for those sharing misinformation. For some context, I get over 50 WhatsApp forwards on any given day. Forwards tend to be everything from breaking news, memes, pithy quotes and so on, and a decent number of them also include links to phishing sites designed to steal login information for banking services or streaming sites.

With the coronavirus pandemic leading to a nation-wide lockdown for three weeks, WhatsApp forwards of late have focused on ways to fight COVID-19. But whereas the CDC promotes public distancing and masks, WhatsApp forwards tend to push unproven facts — claims that the virus doesn't survive in high temperatures — and that eating rasam (a South Indian dish made out of tomatoes, chili pepper, and lentils) can rid someone of COVID-19.

Then there are forwards that tend to be so ridiculous that they beggar belief. The most obvious one in this category is a forward that made the rounds a few weeks ago that stated India was able to stave off further COVID-19 infection because a billion people clanged their pots and pans in unison for five minutes. The forward even alleged that a NASA satellite showed the coronavirus retreating thanks to the "cosmic level sound waves" generated by all the banging of utensils.

WhatsApp needs to take responsibility and roll out strict measures to tackle misinformation.

This was obviously a falsified message, but it was everywhere on WhatsApp. And while it's obvious to see that the message is fake, that isn't the case for a large subset of the populace. WhatsApp forwards are particularly devastating because they mix factual information along with falsified details, and more often than not, it's hard to tell the difference between what's real and what's not.

Imagine you're someone who believes the information in that message about the coronavirus retreating in India. You would then go about your day oblivious to the fact that the pandemic that has already killed 40,000 humans in the last three months. WhatsApp forwards not only cause harm, but they provide a false sense of security that could prove to be disastrous in the long run.

Then there's the privacy issue: not long after the lockdown started, I was forwarded a file that contained the names, phone numbers, and addresses of everyone that had tests done for COVID-19 in my state. This wasn't a list of patients that had the virus, but just those that had been tested. As you can imagine, the people identified in the document were constantly harassed.

WhatsApp needs to take charge here and roll out meaningful tools to curb misinformation on its platform. It should start by disabling message forwarding altogether, as that will limit how easily fake news spreads on the platform. By forcing everyone to manually copy and paste text into every group, WhatsApp will also be able to have a better idea of where a falsified message originated from.

These are unprecedented times, and the last thing we need is unnecessary panic brought on by misinformation. WhatsApp says it is serious about tackling fake news on its platform, and rolled out a way for users to search the web directly from the service. While that's a step in the right direction, it needs to curtail the spread of misinformation in the first place. To do that, it has to remove message forwarding altogether.

WhatsApp for Android: Everything you need to know

Harish Jonnalagadda is a Senior Editor overseeing Asia at Android Central. He leads the site's coverage of Chinese phone brands, contributing to reviews, features, and buying guides. He also writes about storage servers, audio products, and the semiconductor industry. Contact him on Twitter at @chunkynerd.

10 Comments
  • That's a load of Tosh. Just because a minority want to send on fake news. What happened to freedom of speech. In a fascist society as many of you wish to see this is what would happen. People have to be responsible for their own actions, and common sense. Taking the fun out of people's daily lives by forwarding a few funny videos, jokes, memes etc is NOT the way to go. If you want to do what you suggest, move to North Korea, I am sure they would be delighted to see you. Don't go slamming the door on your way out. 🙄🙄
  • What a load of clap trap.
    WhatsApp is a messaging tool, if people have been stupid enough to sign up for fake news mailing lists then that is their problem entirely. I use WhatsApp for personal messaging as well as group chats for our workplace. There are no contacts on my lists that I don't know in either a personal or professional way. If the forward option was removed, it would impact our workflow. (It's good for sending quick shots of graphs and figures for our colleagues) People need to learn some self restraint, control what they do and who they give their personal details to.
  • Fascists, dictators, and authoritarians all around the world grin with delight as fearful people beg to be censored and have their freedoms stripped from them in order to gain some false and fleeting feeling of "security" in times of crisis. WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, etc. are PLATFORMS, not PUBLISHERS. They should have absolutely NO SAY what the content is that comes across their PLATFORMS or, as this article states in rediculous fashion, how that content spreads. It's unfortunate that lies spread, but that's never going to change. It's unfortunate that some people are going to believe those lies, but that's never going to change. Trying to "protect" people from lies by stripping away features is the exact type of authoritian nanny-state thinking that keeps people ignorant, impoverished, and reliant upon others. The minute WhatsApp gets to decide what is "fake news" and what isn't "fake news", the battle for freedom of information is lost. As Odeeee said, if you want these policies, move to China, or North Korea. There you can rest behind your authoritarian bubble of ignorance and censorship, content to rest in the warm embrace of Great Leader and his inerrant understanding of exactly what information is good for you to hear, and what information is bad for you to hear. Meanwhile, I'll just keep my freedoms. Thanks
  • Say it with me. Content moderation at scale is impossible to do well.
  • There's no way that this makes sense.
    Obviously, just my opinion, but...
    Taking away a feature in an app for ppl to communicate privately because of the icky content some users are sharing???
    This isn't a social network. if anything, ramping up privacy and educating public on encryption is what responsible tech sites should be promoting.
    Not taking away one form of ppl to communicate and privately share information with their contacts.
  • How about removing idiotic pointless articles like this one and all the rest that Android Central seem to post just lately?
  • Censorship never works, and just serves to "confirm" dumb ideas. After all, if the message is dangerous enough for "the powers that be" to silence it, it must be true, right? Why would "they" feel so threatened?
  • So, ummm.... here's how someone can verify if the information is false or not... they can go look it up themselves. A feature should not be removed just to satisfy a fascist like yourself. Besides, who is the judge of what is real information and was is misinformation? What if it's a political viewpoint and there is no correct answer?
  • Can the same 'misinformation' not be as easily shared via other services like Messenger, Email etc? Sure all the advice on YouTube is 100% too. In itself is the opinion ref WhatsApp not daft? Author of article grasping at straws for something to write about? Agree with all the comments above. Find better article writers......
  • Why can't you delete a post?