WhatsApp will soon label forwarded messages with the number of times they’ve been forwarded, and will allow groups to control if members can send ‘Frequently Forwarded’ messages, reports wabetainfo. WhatsApp is testing the feature only for Android, which is the dominant mobile OS in India. A message is ‘Frequently Forwarded’ once its forwarded more than 5 times; its marked with a double arrows on its 5th forward (see tweet). Group admins can control this feature. It is meant to add friction to the spread of messages and prevent fake news and rumours. Its worth noting that the feature is in beta test, and there is no defined timeline by when the feature would launch. Previously reported beta features like ‘Search by Image’ – meant to control the spread of fake news – have not gone live on the app yet.

1. Puts the onus on the user: Labeling messages with the number of times they’ve been forwarded shows the user how much a message has spread. It places the onus on the user to not forward a message. As we’ve pointed out before, if something is important to people, they will forward them anyway. Rumours relating to child kidnapping, communal tensions, or issues of national importance are of such a nature that they’ll find an audience. Moreover, people don’t realise that messages could be fake or rumours. Again, this feature can be somewhat negated if a user simply copy-pastes text and send it as a new message.

2. Velocity reduction: WhatsApp has focused on reducing the velocity of messages in the past; it has restricted forwarding messages to only 5 people/chats at a time, and removed the ‘forward’ button next to media messages. Putting an upper limit on frequently forwarded messages will introduce another point of friction, and contribute to reducing the velocity of spread.

3. Can it be counterproductive? If a user sees that a message or piece of news has been forwarded a lot, they might think its even more important for them to share it, and giving them a false sense of urgency to spread it. It may do exactly the opposite of what its meant for.

4. Redesigning groups: This is second major change WhatsApp is making to its Groups. Last week, it was reported that a new invite system for adding people to groups will be rolled out globally. Users will have the choice to approve every invite to join a group, or allow only their contacts to add them to groups automatically. The ‘Frequntly Forwarded’ feature again limits what goes on a group, and gives admin more control over group content.

Features to fight fake news

Last month, WhatsApp said beta its testing a ‘search by image’ feature or a reverse image search feature which would let users upload any image directly from their WhatsApp chats to Google. The search will check whether the image appears elsewhere on the web and in what context. The idea being the users will be able to determine whether the image is genuine or fake, and the context in which it spread. WhatsApp group invite feature has not yet gone live for Indian users, as the company had said it would take a few weeks to roll out globally.

Why is WhatsApp so worried?

  1. Spread of fake news: WhatsApp has been blamed for the spread of rumours and fake news, which have led to the deaths of 40 people being lynched in India over the past two years. The deaths have triggered government scrutiny of the platform and raised issues regarding privacy of users vs. public safety. Besides, the platform has been leveraged by political parties for campaigning, propaganda, and political messaging.
  2. The demand for platform responsibility: Its end-to-end encryption feature has irked the Indian government, which has demanded that the platform have traceability and accountability. Traceability would imply breaking end-to-end encryption, a design that is central to WhatsApp.