The new limits are WhatsApp’s strictest yet.
The chat app has been gradually tightening the restrictions on its forwarding function, where a user can easily choose multiple groups or people to receive the message. Two years ago, a user could pass on a forwarded message to 250 groups at once, with each group capable of hosting hundreds of users.
By last year, the company had reduced that limit to five groups at a time. Now it’s one, although a user could theoretically still forward the same message to individuals or groups one by one.
WhatsApp has long been plagued by misinformation, but the ease with which its group chats and forwarding capabilities can be used to spread such content has been magnified by the coronavirus pandemic.
Unlike Facebook or Instagram, WhatsApp fully encrypts its messages, meaning the company has no idea what’s being said or shared. And unlike Facebook, it does not have the capability to attach a warning and explanation to posts deemed false by fact checkers.
The five-time fowarding limit was introduced after viral hoax messages in India contributed to more than a dozen lynchings in 2018. WhatsApp says forwarding was reduced by 25% as a result.
Experts welcomed the tighter limit announced on Tuesday but said it still doesn’t go far enough.
Banaji and Bhat told CNN Business that without other measures, like being able to report, ban and prosecute users who pass on hateful misinformation, “this new measure for much forwarded content will perforce prove to be ineffective.”
“Our work in India suggested the urgent need for forward limits as one of a bundle of measures in order to curb the rapid spread of hate speech and misinformation,” they added.
WhatsApp has taken other steps in the light of the coronavirus pandemic to fight misinformation, such as donating money to fact checking organizations, some of which run accounts people can send messages to. They’ve also teamed up with international and national health organizations to create chat bots that can answer people’s coronavirus questions.
A WhatsApp spokesperson told CNN Business that feature is still being tested.