Facebook’s WhatsApp Fights Fake News by Curbing Message Forwarding - WSJ

Facebook Inc.’s WhatsApp messaging service is limiting users’ ability to forward content, seeking to curtail ways the popular platform allows the spread of misinformation and sometimes has led to violence.

The move, which follows months of criticism over the company’s response to such incidents, is one of the bigger changes Facebook has made to one of its core services in response to political pressure.

The company said Monday that WhatsApp’s more than one billion global users can now only forward material to five individual users or groups at once, down from 20.

The change likely won’t be significant for most casual users of WhatsApp but it could be a major one for the hundreds of millions of people in the developing world who use it as a primary source for sharing news, including about local events and elections. In those places, WhatsApp has drastically accelerated the rate at which news—and in many cases, rumors—gets circulated among towns and villages.

“This will continue [to] help keep WhatsApp focused on private messaging with close contacts,” a WhatsApp spokeswoman in India said. WhatsApp in July implemented the restriction on its users in India after a spate of killings linked to messages spread on the service and is now rolling it out globally.

WhatsApp is one of the world’s largest messaging services, though it is less popular in the U.S. than in many countries overseas. The encrypted nature of its messages means the platform can’t monitor their content and head off swirling rumors or misinformation. Because it is a private messaging service, too, each time a user forwards a message it gets further from its original source, potentially losing context about who wrote it.

For Facebook, the move follows a number of other efforts to stop the spread of misinformation on its social-media platforms, which are increasingly being used by state actors and political campaigns trying to sway public opinion.

The global rollout of the forwarding limit was disclosed in Indonesia, which faces a general election in April.

In part because WhatsApp is so popular in the developing world, it is increasingly important to Facebook’s business, which is experiencing slower growth in the U.S. and Europe. The service’s two co-founders, who had long opposed efforts to include ads, left the company over the past 18 months. Facebook in August detailed its plans to make money on WhatsApp by selling ads and charging businesses to interact with customers on the service.

WhatsApp’s largest market is India, where it says it has more than 200 million users. In a country where many are connecting to the web for the first time via inexpensive smartphones and cheap mobile data, it offers a simple, free means for consumers to send text messages, videos and photos to friends and family.

Many Indians have never sent an email or shopped online, but they have become avid WhatsApp users, bantering with friends and sending heartfelt messages to relatives at all hours of the day.

Indian political parties have also taken to the service, with legions of workers using it to blast out messages to thousands of supporters about coming elections.

But WhatsApp has also been used as a means to spread hoaxes and false news. Last year more than 20 people were killed in India after rumors spread through the service, prompting the company to introduce the restriction.

Separately, New Delhi is pressuring WhatsApp and some other services to let officials track and read encrypted messages in the name of national security, part of the country’s wider efforts to constrain global tech giants’ power.

WhatsApp has “pushed back on government attempts to ban or weaken end-to-end encryption and will continue to do so,” according to a person familiar with the company’s thinking.

The platform said in a release it had been testing the forwarding limit for six months and would continue to listen to feedback, opening the door to more changes or a rollback should users revolt. It said it would continue to look for “new ways of addressing viral content.” The company saw the number of forwarded messages decrease by about 25% globally during the test period, said a person familiar with the testing.

WhatsApp previously took a series of smaller steps in response to government warnings that it needed to do more to control the spread of misinformation. For instance, it published newspaper ads with tips on how users can decide if a message or chat is real or not. It also started labeling forwarded messages on its platform to help users determine if a friend or relative wrote them.

WhatsApp has said it was “horrified” by the Indian violence.

The five-forward limit won’t eliminate the ability of users to reach large numbers of people at once, since it allows five messages to WhatsApp groups. Those groups are capped at 256 people so theoretically one person could reach 1,280 users with a message before maxing out.

—Yoree Koh
contributed to this article.

Write to James Hookway at james.hookway@wsj.com and Newley Purnell at newley.purnell @wsj.com