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WhatsApp limits forwarding of messages to try to slow coronavirus misinformation

It’s yet another sign that Facebook and tech companies more broadly are taking unusual steps to try to weed out false information during the global coronavirus pandemic.
Image: coronavirus, COVID-19
Illustration of coronavirus, COVID-19.US Food and Drug Administration / AFP - Getty Images

The messaging service WhatsApp said Tuesday that it is limiting the use of a feature that allows users to forward messages, a significant change for a popular feature that has also been used to spread misinformation and bad medical advice about the coronavirus.

The Facebook-owned smartphone app said in a blog post that once a message has been forwarded from one user to another more than five times, anyone getting the message will be able to send it along to only one other person or chat group.

The change will help “keep conversations intimate,” WhatsApp said in the blog post.

“Is all forwarding bad? Certainly not,” it said, mentioning funny memes and efforts to organize public support for health care workers as positive uses of forwarding.

The company said, however, that it has “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. We believe it’s important to slow the spread of these messages down to keep WhatsApp a place for personal conversation.”

It’s yet another sign that Facebook and tech companies more broadly are taking unusual steps to try to weed out false information during the global coronavirus pandemic, a sharp contrast from their once-held position that they were neutral platforms that didn’t put their thumb on the scales of public debate.

WhatsApp is among the most popular messaging services in the world with more than 2 billion users.

Long chains of forwarded messages have been a concern for years on WhatsApp and similar services, as well as on traditional email, as people send along hoaxes and other false information sometimes to their entire contact lists.

Experts have called it a literal “game of telephone” in which people have warned, falsely, that martial law would soon be imposed, a rumor that spread widely last month and led to a denial from the National Security Council.