WhatsApp limits message forwarding to fight coronavirus misinformation

WhatsApp on an Android phone.
(Image credit: Alex Ruhl/Shutterstock)

In order to slow the spread of false information around coronavirus, WhatsApp is limiting how often chat messages can be forwarded.

From now on, you'll be able to forward a frequently-forward message -- one that's already been forwarded more than five times, indicated by a double-arrow icon -- to only one contact or group chat at a time. If you want to forward something to more than one contact, you'll have to do it manually.

"We know many users forward helpful information, as well as funny videos, memes, and reflections or prayers they find meaningful," WhatsApp said in a blog post. "However, we've seen a significant increase in the amount of forwarding which users have told us can feel overwhelming and can contribute to the spread of misinformation."

WhatsApp may not be used much in the U.S., but in many parts of the world it's practically a utility. Tens of millions of people use WhatsApp for local and international phone calls, social networking and photo and video sharing every day. It works, it's easy to use and it's totally free.

Deadly disinformation

Unfortunately, WhatsApp has also become a potent way to spread false rumors and other dubious information. WhatsApp's group-chat function has been cited as a factor in the spread of anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka and in mob lynchings in India, both in 2018. Dozens of people were killed in India.

As a response, WhatsApp in July 2018 limited the forwarding of messages to only five chats at once in India, and then extended that limit to the rest of the world six months later. 

Now people are burning cell-phone towers in Britain and Ireland because of internet rumors that 5G signals cause coronavirus infections. WhatsApp is widely used in those countries.

Those rumors are being spread on many social-media platforms. Facebook and YouTube are deleting posts that spread this stupid notion, but WhatsApp can't do the same because its end-to-end encryption prevents it from seeing the contents of individual posts. 

The WhatsApp blog post doesn't mention the cell-tower arson, but does say that WhatsApp is trying "to help connect people with accurate information," and invites its users to visit the WhatsApp fact-checking page and the WhatsApp coronavirus information hub.

WhatsApp said its first attempt at slowing the spread of false information led to a 25% decrease in message-forwarding. It clearly hopes to make an even bigger dent this time.

Paul Wagenseil

Paul Wagenseil is a senior editor at Tom's Guide focused on security and privacy. He has also been a dishwasher, fry cook, long-haul driver, code monkey and video editor. He's been rooting around in the information-security space for more than 15 years at FoxNews.com, SecurityNewsDaily, TechNewsDaily and Tom's Guide, has presented talks at the ShmooCon, DerbyCon and BSides Las Vegas hacker conferences, shown up in random TV news spots and even moderated a panel discussion at the CEDIA home-technology conference. You can follow his rants on Twitter at @snd_wagenseil.