The social media platform WhatsApp has taken steps to try to limit the spread of disinformation about the coronavirus Covid-19. The move will also impact other forms of ‘viral’ messages, including those connected to elections.
The change means that a user can only send a ‘frequently forwarded message’ to one of their contact groups or coversations at a time. The previous limit differed depending on the country in which you were based, with a ceiling of five in India but much higher in most other territories. In this context, a frequently forwarded message is one that has been shared more than five times already.
There have already been suggestions that this policy should be taken up by other platforms including Facebook – which could limit the use of the Share button.
This change, if not revoked once the Covid-19 crisis is over, will also have a massive impact on elections. In countries where WhatsApp is the one of the main social media platforms – such as Brazil or India – the spread of fake political news has been particularly difficult to contain as WhatsApp groups are closed and there is no form of register of popular posts, nor is there an opportunity for fact checking. Limiting the sharing of news via the platform will significantly diminish the ability to share both truthful and false information.
However, the move has been criticised by mainstream media outlets. Jamie Angus, Director of the BBC World Service group, tweeted that the idea was counterproductive and called for trusted news sources to be allowed direct access to promote content about the virus directly onto the platform.
And whilst media like the BBC do have their own platforms of course, reaching out to other audiences via social media is seen by many as being significant during a time of national lockdown.
Angus’ comments, however, reflect a UK situation where broadcasters like the BBC are widely trusted by the public. The platforms, operating on a global basis, might be wary about handing over any sort of editorial control to state run media in authoritarian countries or to making the decision as to what constitutes a trusted media source in deeply polarized markets such as the USA or Ukraine.