It’s so hard to fight fake news on WhatsApp that Facebook is buying newspaper ads

Old solutions for new problems.
Old solutions for new problems.
Image: Reuters/Dado Ruvic
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The spread of fake news on WhatsApp is so rampant in India that Facebook has resorted to an old-fashioned method of trying to fight it: placing ads in physical newspapers. The app’s design likely influenced the company’s decision, since WhatsApp messages are encrypted, blocking everyone aside for the sender and receiver from viewing the content.

WhatsApp was warned last week by the Indian government about abuses on the platform after a spate of lynchings reportedly caused by rumors circulating through messages on the app, which is the most popular messaging service in the country.

Facebook recently took out newspaper ads in the US as well, along with TV spots and a campaign on mass transit services, but those have more been to defend the company amid the Russian election controversy and Cambridge Analytica scandal. The Indian ad appears to be more of a public service announcement, educating users how to spot fake news.

The company has tried many methods of fighting misinformation on Facebook, some more misguided than others. Still, the battle is made easier by the fact that content on Facebook is visible to its administrators, fact-checkers, and that it can be hidden from the News Feed by the platform’s algorithm.

On WhatsApp, moderation is much harder. Messages are encrypted, and groups are limited to 256 people, so it’s hard to assess when a piece of information goes viral, Poynter notes. Organizations that independently fact-check on WhatsApp have been popping up in countries where the service is popular. They function as accounts which respond to messages about instances of misinformation circulating on the platform. Facebook, Poynter says, is working with some of them.

The ad, which Reuters reports will be placed in regional newspapers in English and in Hindi, also announces that WhatsApp is rolling out a feature that allows you to see if a message was forwarded, and not originally created by the sender. Facebook wasn’t immediately available to comment on when it would be available.