Instant messaging service WhatsApp on Tuesday night launched a label to identify forwarded messages, as the company struggles to combat fake news and the spread of misinformation across countries, including India. The feature goes live across all countries including the US, its home market.
“Starting today, WhatsApp will indicate which messages you receive have been forwarded to you. This extra context will help make one-on-one and group chats easier to follow. It also helps you determine if your friend or relative wrote the message they sent or if it originally came from someone else,” the company said in an emailed statement.
Users need to have the latest supported version of WhatsApp to see the new forwarded label on their phones.
There are more than 230 million monthly active WhatsApp users in India. More than 1.5 billion people across the world use the messaging app.
On Tuesday, Facebook-owned WhatsApp also published advertisements in key Indian newspapers, speaking of its efforts to tackle the spread of misinformation, prompted by a flurry of fake messages that prompted mob lynchings and the government’s letter to the company expressing its “deep disapproval” about the messaging platforms seeming inability to stop the spread of such messages.
“This morning we started an education campaign in India on how to spot fake news and rumours. Our first step is placing newspaper advertisements across the country in English, Hindi, and several other languages. We will build on these efforts going forward,”said a WhatsApp spokesperson.
WhatsApp said it cares deeply about its users safety. “We encourage you to think before sharing messages that were forwarded. As a reminder, you can report spam or block a contact in one tap and can always reach out to WhatsApp directly for help,” the company added.
“It’s important for people to know if a message they’ve received has been forwarded or not. Without this context, it’s not clear whether a message is new or a potential rumour shared by others. The extra information can help people decide if they should take action on the information they have received,” the spokesperson said.
Its week-long print media campaign will run across Hindi, English and regional dailies across the country.
Technology and policy experts remained divided in their first reactions to the new feature.
Lawyer Apar Gupta said Whatsapp’s feature for flagging forwarded messages will at best indicate that the message has been idly sent through the forward function. “It has easy circumvention. One may be able to copy, paste it, then send it, hence avoiding the labelling. A single character change such as changing the capitalisation may defeat other protection measures as well”.
Ananth Padmanabhan, fellow at Centre for Policy Research said he is not sure if this solution will work. “If people were aware enough to know the distinction between a forward and a direct message, they would also be likely aware of the falsity of several messages they receive on their phones. Moreover, if the message is suitably panicky, it is unlikely people would care whether it’s a forward or a direct one,” he added.
Padmanabhan added that in an encrypted messaging service, there is precious little that the platform can do to police activities happening over it. “So, WhatsApp should not have felt the compulsion to take this effort in the first place. Now that they have taken it, am not sure whether it will help,” he said.
Not everyone is as skeptical.
Sunil Abraham, co-founder at think tank Centre for Internet and Society welcomed the move. “This is an excellent start. It will definitely help users raise levels of skepticism when reading forwarded message. I hope WhatsApp will also add a “fact check this” button next to the forwarded message,” he said.