Facebook-owned WhatsApp is limiting its members to a maximum of five times that they can resend a single message in a bid to root out sharing false information on the platform, with the update to the messenger’s policy announced at an event in Jakarta, Indonesia, which is due to hold a general election in April.
A similar policy was announced some six months ago in India, where the application enjoys its largest market of 220 million users, after Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad railed against "sinister" content making circles online, and in some cases even slandering innocent people: as many as five were lynched to death in the village of Rainpada in Maharashtra's Dhule district because villagers believed them to be child kidnappers due to a rumour that was circulated via WhatsApp.
Many have expressed doubts as to whether the move to diminish the number of message recipients is going to help in any way curb the flow of fake news:
Having my doubts whether a superficial technofix like curbing the number of times a user can forward a #WhatsApp message will actually have any impact on something as inherently human as rumors… just thinking Ctrl+V here. https://t.co/7PkiSYQiHC— Johanna Pruessing (@jo_prue) 21 января 2019 г.
However, others perceived the news as a tightening of censorship:
The inevitable censorship of Whatsapp;https://t.co/99pAaJVNtg— Vanishing Point (@VanishingPoin_t) 21 января 2019 г.
There were, meanwhile, those who questioned the effectiveness of the move, citing no qualitative data with this regard:
It is possible to design products that reduce the spread of misinformation, but doing so effectively requires quantitative metrics to test the impact of each tweak.— Alex Stamos (@alexstamos) 21 января 2019 г.
There is no good public data set for WhatsApp, making it hard to know if this will be effective. https://t.co/59LEbCIigt
I'm being mostly facetious — from what I can tell, companies tend to overvalue this psuedo-metric in determining their strategy, which leads to reactive, haphazard plans without driving towards an actual solution to the underlying problems— Aditya Mukerjee, the Otterrific 🏳️🌈 (@chimeracoder) 21 января 2019 г.
The firm told the BBC that the decision had been made after the company had “carefully” evaluated the results of a half-year-long test in Indonesia:
"The forward limit significantly reduced forwarded messages around the world", a spokeswoman added.
"[This] will help keep WhatsApp focused on private messaging with close contacts. We'll continue to listen to user feedback about their experience, and over time, look for new ways of addressing viral content".
The restriction came at a time when WhatsApp and its parent company Facebook’s services are scrutinized for their role in the spread of propaganda and else untrue content online.
While the use of end-to-end encryption by WhatsApp means its messages can only be read by senders and recipients, with the company incapable of spotting fake news promptly itself, the spread of it has been largely blamed on the number of shares. In a separate move, the Indian government is considering a change to the law that would force Facebook to police WhatsApp for "unlawful" content, and phrased otherwise, would challenge encryption technologies, Indian media reported.
Last week, Facebook announced that it had removed 500 pages and accounts allegedly involved in peddling false reports in Central and Eastern European countries, including Ukraine.