WhatsApp Axes COVID-19 Mass Message Forwarding

Amid rampant misinformation, users of the Facebook-owned messaging platform can no longer send coronavirus messages to more than one user at a time.

In an effort to stem what it says is misinformation being spread on its platform, WhatsApp is limiting the number of recipients to which its users can forward certain messages about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, users of the Facebook-owned messaging app can only forward messages with double arrows — i.e., those that did not originate from a close contact — to one person rather than multiple WhatsApp contacts, according to a company post published Tuesday.

The idea is to stop messages that already have been forwarded a number of times from reaching even more users in rapid succession. By making it more difficult to pass them on, according to company officials, they hope to limit the spread of misinformation about the current global pandemic and crisis. Such misinformation has been running rampant on social media, the company said, adding that it wants to maintain WhatsApp as a platform for private messages.

“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,” according to the blog post. “We believe it’s important to slow the spread of these messages down to keep WhatsApp a place for personal conversation.”

WhatsApp had already set limits two years ago on forwarded messages in order to “constrain virality,” the company said. The limit, which WhatsApp first tested in India, restricted message forwarding to five users and also removed a “quick forward” button that had accompanied media messages.

As a result of this effort, the company said that it saw a 25 percent decrease in total message forwards globally, proving limits do stem the flow of information on WhatsApp, the company said.

Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented flood of information over social-media channels, particularly as people face mandatory social distancing and stay-at-home orders that cut them off from physical contact with family members and friends. Amid this booming use of social media, messaging services like WhatsApp have emerged as a key way  for people to keep in touch, officials said.

“With billions of people unable to see their friends and family in person due to COVID-19, people are relying on WhatsApp more than ever to communicate,” according to the post. “People are talking to doctors, teachers and isolated loved ones via WhatsApp during this crisis.”

Social media also is being used as a conduit for people, including groups of WhatsApp users, to share COVID-19 related news stories, memes and other information regarding health, safety and even theories that differ from what mainstream media reports that question the origin of coronavirus and the lockdown governments have imposed.

One popular alternative/conspiracy theory is that the global rollout of 5G networks is causing the coronavirus outbreak, which inspired some protesters over the weekend to set mobile-phone towers in the United Kingdom on fire. It’s still unclear if those towers, owned by Vodafone, EE and other carriers, were actually being used for 5G.

To help prevent similar scenarios and ensure users get COVID-19 pandemic information from trusted sources, WhatsApp said from now on it will be “working directly with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and governments, including the World Health Organization and over 20 national health ministries, to help connect people with accurate information,” according to the post.

As part of this, WhatsApp also has launched a Coronavirus Information Hub to help people source data and check facts on coronavirus information they may see on social media, to help stymie misinformation campaigns, the company said.

Other connection-oriented applications, including Facebook itself and Twitter, have also said they’re working to limit misinformation around COVID-19.

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