Is WhatsApp helping the spread of fake news?

Patrick Devaney


Disturbing stories are coming in from around the world about crimes being carried out due to misinformation spread via WhatsApp. The Guardian reports that Indian police have linked dozens of murders and serious assaults to WhatsApp rumors. One incident, in particular, saw two men, who were returning from a trip to a waterfall, dragged from their car and beaten to death:

“The villagers got suspicious of the strangers as for the last three or four days messages were going around on WhatsApp, as well as through word of mouth, about child lifters roaming the area,”

Other incidents include a yellow fever outbreak taking hold in Brazil after WhatsApp was used to spread anti-vaccine videos and audio messages, politically motivated fake news spread in Kenya, and fake news about the divorce of David and Victoria Beckham distributed in the UK.

WhatsApp has over 1.5 billion users worldwide and its lauded end-to-end encryption means it is almost impossible for the content of messages sent across the messaging service to be monitored. Everything sent across WhatsApp is private and arrives at its destination precisely as it was sent. There isn’t any sort of algorithmic interference ranking content based on the supposed interests of the recipient or the factual accuracy of the content. This means that big companies like Cambridge Analytica can’t pay to manipulate what users are seeing, but it also means that false information can quickly spread across the messaging service.

According to a report by the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute, more and more people are turning to WhatsApp for news, as the credibility of other more public social networks has been drawn into question. The nature of the messaging service, however, means that it acts more as a conduit for gossip than a reliable newswire. The idea of being in on a secret is just too alluring for some to bother checking the news they’ve received before they send it on again.

Does WhatsApp spread fake news?
WhatsApp knows it has a fake news problem.

A WhatsApp spokesman has said that the company is aware of the problem and that they’re working to prevent the spread of fake news:

“We’ve made it easy to block a phone number with just one tap – and are constantly evolving our tools to block automated content. We’re working to give people more control over private groups, which remain strictly limited in size. We’re also stepping up our education efforts so that people know about our safety features, as well as how to spot fake news and hoaxes.”

A recent update, highlighting forwarded messages, does make it easier to see if you’re receiving fraudulent messages. With robust encryption meaning there is no way for fact checkers to verify information sent across WhatsApp, there is still a lot more work for the messaging service to do if it is going to help prevent the spread of fake news. As Nic Newman, who co-authored the Oxford University report, says on WhatsApp’s fake news story:

“It’s very early days but I’ve got a hunch this is going to become a much bigger story.”

Do you ever receive news stories via WhatsApp? We’d love to hear from you if you have.

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