What's up with WhatsApp?

Popular messaging app WhatsApp has more than a billion users, including 6 million Australians, which makes it a popular hunting ground for cyber criminals and misinformation merchants alike.

As a result, the company, which is owned by social media platform Facebook, is testing new limits on the number of people to whom private WhatsApp messages can be forwarded in Brazil, after recent political controversy there about misinformation, and to maintain what the organisation describes as a ‘feeling of intimacy’ for its users.

WhatsApp is primarily an end-to-end encrypted messaging service for one-on-one or small group conversations, which makes it different from other social media apps that are designed as broadcast platforms that can tap into a mass audience.

According to Chris Daniels, WhatsApp Vice-President in his recent blog, WhatsApp has introduced the limit as part of its responsibility to ‘amplify the good and mitigate the harm’ where the spread of information is concerned.

‘Today, over 90 per cent of messages sent on WhatsApp in Brazil are individual, one-on-one conversations,’ Daniels writes. ‘And because we limit group sizes, you’d need to create over 4,000 individual groups to reach a million people. This is very different from other apps that are designed as broadcast platforms.’

A maximum of just 20 recipients can now receive a forwarded message, instead of a user’s entire address book, based on feedback that people sometimes felt overwhelmed by the volume of WhatsApp messages they received, as well as concerns about viral misinformation. Daniels says the move led some politicians in Brazil to declare that they would fight to increase WhatsApp’s forward messaging limit from 20 to 200 people, while, he writes, ‘.others called on WhatsApp to do just the opposite: lower the limit even further.’

The conundrum draws WhatsApp into a familiar grey area - the role of digital giants in democracies where, according to Daniels, ‘Free and fair elections are at the heart of every democracy and misinformation can be a real challenge.’

‘This debate brought into focus an ongoing tension that is currently playing out in Brazil and that speaks to a larger reality: when you connect over a billion people across countries and cultures, you’ll see all of the good that humanity can do, as well as some misuse.’

‘Fighting misinformation is an ongoing challenge for society.’

Target-hardening the electorate

WhatsApp’s current work in Brazil also includes a unique collaboration with Projecto Comprova, a consortium of more than 24 news organisations in Brazil to fact-check content transmitted via the app and working with political parties and law enforcement on using WhatsApp responsibly during elections.

Other initiatives include clearly labelling forwarded messages as forwarded, so recipients can identify the source of the message, using artificial intelligence tools to block thousands of accounts WhatsApp says are used by ‘bad actors’ to spread spam and false news, and implementing a public education campaign for 50 million Brazilians on how to identify and stop the spread of ‘fake’ news.