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Jan 24 2019

Fake News Prevention: WhatsApp Restricts Forwarding Feature

Earlier this week, WhatsApp users noticed some not-so-subtle changes in the interface and handling of their favorite messaging and chat app. That's because the Facebook subsidiary has embarked on a six month test phase during which it will seek to reign in the spread of unsubstantiated rumors and 'fake news' by limiting the forwarding capabilities of the software as well as the number of concurrent chats.

As of Monday, users across the globe have only been able to forward messages to five recipients at once (as opposed to 20), and the quick forward button next to media messages has been removed. Likewise, there's now a ceiling for how many conversations users can hold in parallel; here, the WhatsApp team also opted for five. The test phase was announced on the company blog last Saturday, leaving only a small window for power users and free speech advocates of any denomination to complain.

The somewhat abrupt test launch was all the more surprising since most tech companies will usually try to stay out of political debates so long as they don't affect their products, services or bottom lines. By contrast, the Facebook/WhatsApp decision to impose the new restrictions – and impose them now – clearly has a political dimension, as it follows three damning BBC reports that looked into the negative effects of unrestricted WhatsApp usage in India as well as Kenya and Nigeria. Those studies were commissioned following accounts of numerous killings in India, where at least 32 purported criminals were lynched following wildfire rumors about their alleged wrongdoings. Moreover, such rumors have also incited hate between religious and ethnic groups on a more general level. Together with the largely negative press coverage Facebook has had to deal with over the past two years – especially with regard to the Brexit referendum and the U.S. general election of 2016 – the BBC reports have very likely inspired the flat-out commendable decision.


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