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April 7, 2020updated 17 Apr 2020 3:14pm

WhatsApp limits message forwarding to curb spread of Covid-19 rumours

By Ellen Daniel

From messages claiming that coronavirus can be killed by consuming hot drinks, bogus claims of insider knowledge of impending lockdowns, and texts appearing to show people being fined for leaving their house, the current Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has seen a surge in false information circulating online.

Although Facebook and Twitter are ramping up efforts to limit the spread of misinformation on their platforms, through actions such as removing debunked tweets or Facebook posts, and the UK government has established a Rapid Response Unit for dealing with the issue, private, encrypted messaging is far harder to control, making it possible for fake news to spread fast.

Part of this problem is stems from the 65 billion messages sent on messaging app WhatsApp every day. The dissemination of rumours, false information or hoaxes on WhatsApp has been an issue for several years now, even leading to mob murders in India, after false messages accusing individuals of planning to abduct children circulated on the platform. Although the forwarding of messages is usually not malicious, it can contribute heightened levels of stress and uncertainty, and it is not surprising that there has been a rapid spread of viral content related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The EU has even warned that nation-state attackers could be capitalising on the current situation by spreading misinformation designed to create unrest.

In an attempt to curb the spread of Covid-19 rumours and “keep WhatsApp a place for personal conversation”, today WhatsApp announced it is imposing a limit on how many times a message can be forwarded, limiting it one chat at a time.

WhatsApp attempts to combat fake news

Last year, WhatsApp introduced a feature to highlight when a message has been forwarded many times, indicated by two arrows, and begun limiting the number of chats a message could be forwarded to at once, setting the limit at five chats down from the previous limit of 250 chats, but the latest measures go one step further. According to WhatsApp, the five-chat limit reduced mass-forwarding by 25%.

Although such measures do not stop the spread of viral messages entirely, as users can still choose to send to multiple chats, it makes the process more time-consuming, which may help reduce it.

According to WhatsApp, it bans two million accounts per month for attempting to send bulk or automated messages and is also working directly with NGOs and governments, including the World Health Organization and national health ministries, to help provide users with accurate information. It has also established a Coronavirus Information Hub, which offers advice on how to stay connected to loved ones, reliable sources of information and advice on stopping the spread of rumours.

The platform is also currently testing a function designed to help users question the authenticity of a message. A magnifying glass icon will be displayed next to frequently forwarded messages, giving users the option to send that message to a web search where they can find other sources of information.

Jake Moore, Cybersecurity Specialist at ESET explains that the forwarding of content not only contributes to the spread of Covid-19 rumours, it can also present a cybersecurity risk:

“There’s enough fake news going around without this to contend with. If you ever see a message that requests for it to be passed on, resist the temptation, delete it and make the sender aware of the problems involved with the spread of misinformation. It is possible for malicious attachments to cause havoc on phones – like what happened with Jeff Bezos recently– so it is really important to validate the message with the sender before spreading anything.

“As people struggle to deal with the temptation of forwarding messages on, this move will prevent it going further than it should. Bot farms are used to mass spread information, so this move will have huge effects on mitigating their circulation.”

Read more: How should social media tackle “avalanche” of coronavirus misinformation?