WhatsApp is going global with a restriction used to fight fake news in India

Paying it forward.
Paying it forward.
Image: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic
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Over six months after WhatsApp decided that, in India, a message can be forwarded to only five recipients at once, the company has imposed the same restriction on its users worldwide.

The five-forward limit was introduced in the country last July after around 25 lynchings by vigilante mobs were tied to rumours spread on the messaging app. Going global with the move may indicate WhatsApp is pleased with its results in India.

“Recently, many political parties and their social media cells have accepted openly that limitation on message forwarding has seriously affected their mass scale reach-out,” Osama Manzar, founder and director of the India-based Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), told Quartz. “Which clearly vindicates the decision by WhatsApp limiting message-forwarding to not more than five.”

Manzar’s civil-society organisation has partnered with WhatsApp to conduct digital literacy workshops on misinformation spreading over WhatsApp and other social media platforms—a phenomenon rampant in India.

Facebook-owned WhatsApp has also spent at least Rs120 crore ($16.9 million) on television, print, and radio advertisements in India to create awareness about the perils of fake news and believing everything one reads on the app.

The globalisation of WhatsApp’s five-recipient limit may further hamper Indian political parties’ plans. A November report in ET Prime (paywall) showed that parties seemed to be using foreign phone numbers in political WhatsApp groups as they “come with the inherent advantage of not having limits for forwarding chats.”

Sarvjeet Singh, executive director of the think tank the Centre for Communication governance (CCG), believes WhatsApp’s choice to globalise the forwarding limit makes sense in light of misinformation’s effects across the developing world. “As more and more elections come in different parts of the world, especially in what would broadly be classified as the global south—where internet penetration is growing and people are coming online for the first time, and it’s difficult for them to understand whether content is fake or not—I would think that this phenomenon (misinformation) would increase, at least in the short term,” he said.

But Singh believes that it remains to be seen how effective the five-forward limit is, specifically. “I think that’ll take a longer time to get a conclusive answer to,” he added.

Some aren’t convinced about the effectiveness of WhatsApp’s five-recipient restriction in India. The “velocity (of misinformation) has pretty much remained the same” since its introduction in the country, believes Pratik Sinha, co-founder of Indian fact-checking website AltNews.

But the most crucial fact, he said, is that political misinformation “is always motivated.” So for political parties, “it’s just about putting in more labour, putting a couple more guys to make sure they keep forwarding the thing all day.” While the limit does make spreading misinformation more cumbersome, it is far from a solution, he claimed. “Especially when political parties have so much money, they’ll just spend more money,” Sinha said.

Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.