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WhatsApp imposes strict new rules to combat spread of hoax messages

After the rapid spread of hoax and spam content in India led to actual violence in the streets, WhatsApp has announced that it's imposing new limits on how users will be able to forward messages.

While in the UK and US recent discussions around fake news have centred on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, forwarding messages on WhatsApp appears to be a much more popular way of spreading information in India.

Until now, you’ve been able to forward messages on the platform to over 250 people at once. This could allow misinformation to rapidly spread and, according to the Washington Post, it eventually led to — in one instance — mobs attacking individuals falsely accused of child kidnapping.

In a statement to Recode, WhatsApp said it was “horrified” by this violence.

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Under the new rules, you’ll only be able to forward messages to 20 chats at once, and in India this limit will be even lower, at just five.

This change (which WhatsApp is calling a ‘test’ for now) will also remove the ability of Indian users to use the ‘quick forward’ functionality, which uses a small button next to multimedia messages to make it even easier to pass them along.

But it’s not just individuals that WhatsApp is worried about. In India, one unnamed political party has started using the messaging app to message thousands of voters at once. The encrypted nature of the app makes it much more difficult to monitor this campaigning to ensure that parties are playing fair.

Misinformation in private

Halting the spread of fake news on a platform like Twitter or Facebook is one thing. Both of these social networks rely mainly on people posting information publicly, and so it’s relatively easy to see when misinformation is being spread at scale.

But WhatsApp, with its focus on privacy through rock solid encryption, is much more difficult to monitor.

A difficult balance needs to be found between protecting the privacy of users and preventing misinformation from spreading. For now, WhatsApp’s attempts are focused around preventing the speed at which messages can propagate through a network, but it’s unknown whether this will be enough to solve the problem entirely.

How do you think WhatsApp should stop the spread of fake news? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook @TrustedReviews.

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