WhatsApp combats coronavirus misinformation on platform with forwarding limits

Messages can only be sent to 1 person or group at a time

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Facebook-owned messaging app WhatsApp announced on Tuesday that it is putting limits on forwarded messages in an effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus misinformation.

The encrypted messaging app already has a feature in place that lets users know when a message has been copied and forwarded to individuals or groups to differentiate between forwarded and direct messages.

The platform is now putting a limit on forwarded messages so users can only send them to one person or group at a time instead of multiple people simultaneously, according to a Tuesday blog post.

WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook app icons displayed on a phone screen. / iStock

"Is all forwarding bad? Certainly not," the blog post reads. "In recent weeks, people have also used WhatsApp to organize public moments of support for frontline health workers. However, 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."

Forwarded messages have the potential to spread misinformation on a massive scale because of the rate at which they are shared and re-shared without users questioning their accuracy.

WHATSAPP USED BY MORE THAN 25% OF THE WORLD

The company said it believes "it’s important to slow the spread of these messages down to keep WhatsApp a place for personal conversation."

WhatsApp in March launched a messaging "hub" for health workers, educators and small businesses to connect on the platform.

The app previously put a limit on forwarded messages in January 2019 "to constrain virality," the company saw a 25-percent decrease in global message forwards, according to the blog post.

Scott Sedlacek, right, who says he has tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus, wears a mask and uses his phone to film a news conference held Wednesday, March 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

"In addition to this change, we are working directly with NGOs and governments, including the World Health Organization and over 20 national health ministries, to help connect people with accurate information. Together these trusted authorities have sent hundreds of millions of messages directly to people requesting information and advice," the post concluded.

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The decision comes as Facebook and its platforms, including WhastApp and Instagram, have had an increase in daily activity since more people are staying home away from friends and family to contain the spread of COVID-19.

In a blog post detailing the many measures Facebook has taken to help its community of more than 2 billion users take on COVID-19, the tech giant said its first responsibility is to ensure that "everyone has access to accurate information and removing harmful content, including "connecting people to credible information on FacebookMessengerInstagram and WhatsApp."

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The number of phone calls being made on WhatsApp are more than double what they normally are, and the company recognizes how many people across the globe are going to Facebook to get their news about the virus, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said in a March 18 phone call with reporters.

Facebook is already partnering with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization to put their information before others, and it has offered multiple grants to those in need, including $100 million in grants to small businesses affected by the virus.

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