LONDON: Tech experts have welcomed WhatsApp’s decision to launch a new feature to restrict the freedom to forward messages, in a bid to crack down on a new fake news crisis surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
WhatsApp will reduce the number of contacts or groups a person can forward a regularly shared message from five to one.
If a regularly forwarded message is received, the content will now include a double arrow symbol to alert the user to the message’s popularity.
Caroline Das-Monfrais, chief strategy officer at FTI Consulting, told Arab News that “proactive action from social media companies to help prevent the spread of fake news is welcome.”
She said: “Creating friction to make viral content harder to share is definitely part of the solution, but tech companies can’t and shouldn’t go all the way. There’s an element of trust and freedom in the apps we use to communicate with each other every day.”
She added: “Everyone has a responsibility in the fight against misinformation. Tech companies provide the tools, but we should all exercise judgement.”
In recent weeks, new conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 have led to calls for social media companies and regulators to act to prevent the spread of fake news.
Untruths about 5G technology have inspired criminal acts throughout the UK, with telecoms masts being targeted by arsonists.
Prominent British boxer Amir Khan shared a false story that COVID-19 is a man-made pandemic that was released to “control the population to install 5G towers.”
TV personality and “Britain’s Got Talent” judge Amanda Holden later faced criticism for sharing the same story.
Jo Stevens, Labour MP for Cardiff Central, said the move by WhatsApp is “an encouraging step to help prevent dangerous disinformation spreading about COVID-19.”
She added: “We’ve seen the impact it (disinformation) has had this week with criminal damage to 5G masts on the basis of false claims.”
Ed Vaizey, former British minister for culture, communications and creative industries, told Arab News that the spread of fake news around COVID-19 is “potentially a matter of life and death. If people are misled about precautions and cures, that could cause very serious harm.”
He said: “It has forced tech companies to act and put resources into combating fake news in a way they didn’t before when it came to elections or general malicious issues like anti-vaccination campaigns, which caused harm but in a less high-profile way.”
Vaizey added: “If we’re going to learn any lesson from this pandemic, it’s that fake news is very damaging and that tech companies have the capacity to have an effect on it.
“There’s an ecosystem of innovative new companies like NewsGuard bringing up the fight against fake news. After the pandemic ends, governments must redouble their efforts to take the issue seriously.”
On Tuesday, a WhatsApp spokesperson said in a statement: “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.
“We believe it’s important to slow the spread of these messages to keep WhatsApp a place for personal conversation.”
Unlike Facebook and Twitter, WhatsApp’s messaging encryption software prevents its own workers and third parties from viewing content sent on the platform.
This prevents it from using intrusive content-removing software employed by other social media or messaging companies.
Instead, WhatsApp has opted to toughen so-called messaging friction, the software and freedom users have to share information.
In 2018, it was possible to forward a message to 250 contacts and groups at once. Last year, the limit was set at five, before now being reduced to one.
It will still be possible for a user to widely share content, but WhatsApp is confident that the change will slow down the spread of misinformation.
While fake news is in the company’s crosshairs, it knows that popular comic forwarded messages are a great way to share joy during difficult times.
“We know many users forward helpful information, as well as funny videos, memes and reflections or prayers they find meaningful. In recent weeks, people have also used WhatsApp to organize public moments of support for frontline health workers,” the company’s spokesperson said.
Many WhatsApp users have reported a surge in their usage of the app in order to keep in touch with distant friends and family, with one Twitter user joking that the change to the platform’s forwarding limits will “cut messages from my parents by 89 percent.”