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WhatsApp now allows users to search the web to verify claims made in forwards

WhatsApp's new 'search the web' feature | Source: WhatsApp Blog

WhatsApp now allows users in a handful of markets — but not India — to verify claims made in forwarded messages on the platform, the company announced on August 3. The feature, called ‘search the web’, will add a magnifying glass icon next to “messages that have been forwarded many times”. The icon will appear next to messages that have been forwarded at least five times, according to TechCrunch. We have reached out to WhatsApp for more details.

The feature was rolled out in Brazil, Italy, Ireland, Mexico, Spain, UK, and US, on August 3, the Facebook-owned company said in the statement. It is unclear when and whether feature will be rolled out in India, where WhatsApp has more users than any other market.

WhatsApp said that this feature works by allowing users to upload the message via their browser without WhatsApp ever seeing the message itself. It isn’t clear if only forwarded messages which contain a link will get the magnifying glass icon next to it. According to a screenshot shared by the company, a false forwarded message about a cure for COVID-19 had the magnifying lens next to it, which when used, opened articles from fact checking organisations and the WHO.

WhatsApp’s new ‘search the web’ feature | Source: WhatsApp Blog

When we tried forwarding a false message in a controlled manner more than five times, for test purposes, we didn’t see the magnifying lens next to it, but WhatsApp showed a notification saying that the message will be marked as “forwarded many times”:

The notification WhatsApp showed when we tried forwarding a message more than five times

WhatsApp had earlier limited forwards: This is among the steps that WhatsApp has tried to take in order to fight misinformation which is prevalent on the platform. In April this year, WhatsApp limited the number of forwards to only one chat/person at a time now, down from the earlier restriction of forwards to five people/chat at a time. It claimed since then, it saw a 70% drop in the number of highly forwarded messages on the platform.

  • It was also reported that WhatsApp was experimenting with disappearing messages, a feature already present on chat platforms like Signal and Telegram.

WhatsApp’s India challenges: In India, WhatsApp has faced a number of challenges, with end-to-end encryption, and the government wanting access to data through data localisation and weakening of encryption:

  • Challenges to encryption: WhatsApp execs have had to make several trips to India to meet government officials, including IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, to address concerns around misinformation and fake news. The government wants the company to disclose the originator of messages, and is in the process of modifying the Intermediary Rules, in order to make this a statutory requirement for social media platforms.
  • Data localisation hurdles: WhatsApp pay has been running in beta mode since February 2018, with the number of users capped at one million, because of a regulatory demand for data localisation.

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