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How WhatsApp is tackling the spread of fake news during COVID-19

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WhatsApp has gone on to become the texting app of choice for billions around the world. With so many using it as their primary source of information exchange, it comes as no surprise that there is a fair amount of fake news that gets propagated by the app.

Such instances are not rare for any social platform, but during a global pandemic like the one we are going through right now, misinformation could easily escalate to a point where it becomes a matter of life and death. Well aware of its influence, WhatsApp has been taking active steps towards keeping these half-truths to a minimum. Here are the biggest changes brought in the app that should go a long way in curbing the spread of fake news.

Limits on forwarding messages

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A lack of vigilance before forwarding a received piece of information usually acts as the spark needed for a message to go viral. To slow that down, WhatsApp brought a change that will affect ‘frequently forwarded messages’ (messages which have been forwarded more than five times). Going forward, users will be able to forward such messages only once, down from the earlier limit of five chats at once. The company hopes that this will discourage blind forwarding at a bigger scale. Theoretically, users can still forward the message to more people, just that the process won’t be as straightforward as before. 

As always, messages that are not original will continue to have a “forwarded” tag to remind users.

Official updates from the Government

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The Indian Government is also playing its part in acting as an official resource for all the updates around COVID-19. A MyGov Corona Helpdesk chatbot has been created, which can be reached out to via WhatsApp. It offers emergency contacts, symptoms, and other literature, loads of advice on how to be safe, information from doctors, etc. The latest updates on how many cases have been detected in the country can also be found daily. Moreover, official alerts from the authorities and clarification on hot topics are also shared.

It is a well-rounded offering that is easy to use and brings a lot of accurate information to your fingertips. A similar chatbot is also offered by the World Health Organisation, which shows a more global perspective at the current scenario, along with research breakthroughs and updates on how far we have come to dealing with the virus.

Verifying authenticity from within the app

WhatsApp is also looking to educate users and encourage them to do a check on the information received, as the first line of defense. A feature that is expected to be rolled out soon will let users look up information around a particular message from within the app at the click of a button. According to WABetaInfo, the ability to “Search message on Web” will come in the upcoming 2.20.94 beta build at first. 

Frequently forwarded messages will have an option to look up information, where a Google window will pop up, to verify the information quickly.

Other social media apps such as YouTube and Facebook’s Instagram have been actively working on thwarting the spread of Coronavirus-related stories on their feeds. However, that isn’t really possible on WhatsApp as the messaging app is end-to-end encrypted. Consequently, texts can not be viewed by anyone else (including WhatsApp or a third-party fact-checking institute). So while it theoretically offers a higher level of privacy, content moderation is next to impossible.

In special times like these, all users must be proactive in sharing the right knowledge and nipping misinformation in the bud. If you ever spot a message that does not seem right, go out of your way to educate the sender. The fight is also against misinformation and panic, which can affect a lot more people than the virus itself.

Aakash is the engine that keeps TechRadar India running, using his experience and ideas to help consumers get to the right products via reviews, buying guides and explainers. Apart from phones, computers and cameras, he is obsessed with electric vehicles.