To Combat Fake News in India, WhatsApp to Limit Forwarding of Messages

In India, where users forward more messages than any other country in the world, a lower limit of 5 would be put in place.

New Delhi: Instant messaging application WhatsApp on Friday morning stated that it was testing a feature that would limit the number of people its Indian users could forward a message to in one go.

Over the last two months, mob lynchings triggered by false and inflammatory messages in India, allegedly circulated over WhatsApp, have put the Facebook-owned company at loggerheads with the Modi government.

On Thursday, the ministry of electronics and information technology (MEITY) sent a second legal letter to WhatsApp, asking to come out with “more effective solutions” to prevent mob violence in India.

“When rumours and fake news get propagated by mischief mongers, the medium used for such propagation cannot evade responsibility and accountability. If they remain mute spectators they are liable to be treated as abettors and thereafter face consequent legal action,” the ministry said in a statement.

“Reports in the media resonate the general sentiment that there is much more that needs to be done by WhatsApp. There is a need for bringing in traceability and accountability when a provocative/inflammatory message is detected and a request is made by law enforcement agencies,” it added.

Lower limit for forwarding

On Friday, WhatsApp announced in a statement that in India, “where people forward more messages, photos, and videos than any other country in the world”,  it would test a “lower limit of five chats”.

This essentially means that Indian users will no longer be able to forward a message to more than five people or groups at once. 

The company also announced that it would remove the “quick forward button next to media messages”, a development aimed at reducing the speed at which fake messages spread and are forwarded.

“We believe that these changes – which we’ll continue to evaluate – will help keep WhatsApp the way it was designed to be: a private messaging app.We are deeply committed to your safety and privacy which is why WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted, and we’ll continue to improve our app with features like this one,” the company added in a statement.

Senior IT ministry officials The Wire spoke – and who WhatsApp officials met over the last few weeks – said that it was an attempt at to make forwarding messages “drudgery”.

“How they explained it to us in a presentation is that if a person wanted to forward one message to 100 people, earlier he could do it easily. Now he will have to repeat that process 20 times, which takes more effort,” one ministry official said.

Discussions with Election Commission

The Economic Times on Friday reported that senior WhatsApp officials had met with officials from the Election Commission and major political parties to assure them of the company’s intentions to prevent misuse of the platform in India’s coming election cycle.

According to the media report, the instant messaging service that it would look out for “spam messaging techniques” used by hostile actors from the time the model code of conduct kicks in and “especially 48 hours before polling”.

The Facebook-owned firm has also promised to bring a fake news verification model it used in the Mexico general elections to India and also told the Election Commission that it was focused on “weeding out suspicious users at the registration stage”. Specifically, it would be monitoring the type of bulk WhatsApp users who buy SIM cards at one go from a telecom company to launch multiple groups.