41 million messages are sent on WhatsApp every minute, according to Visual Capitalist. Among them, there are hoaxes and fake news that are spreading at full speed. The company, owned by Facebook, has tried to curb the spread of false information by limiting the forwarding of messages to only five contacts. Researchers from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (Brazil) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have found that this measure slows the spread of fake news, but doesn't stop it altogether.
Forwarding of memes, manipulated photographs or contextless videos and audios has been in recent years one of WhatsApp's main headaches. Hoaxes that are shared daily on the instant messaging service include conspiracy theories, misinformation about vaccination, or false messages about child kidnappers that have caused mass beatings to several people in India. The spread of fake news has also impacted on electoral processes. For example, Brazil's 2018 presidential election led to aggressive disinformation campaigns directed directly at voters' mobiles.
WhatsApp has taken steps to combat the problem. In July 2018, it began alerting users when the messages they received had been forwarded from another chat and limited the forwarding of messages to 20 different people or groups at once. Later, he announced that the restriction would go further: users could only forward a particular text, audio, or image to five different contacts or groups. "Can only be shared with up to five chats," WhatsApp alerts you since last January when you try to forward a message to a larger number of contacts.
To see how effective it is to limit message forwarding, the researchers joined public WhatsApp groups from Brazil, India and Indonesia discussing policy. Links to access them, which have a limit of 256 users, were publicly available online. Public groups, according to the authors of the research, are the key backbone of misinformation campaigns on WhatsApp. Still, most groups in the IM service are private and therefore have not been able to access them.
"This research allowed us to understand how quickly information can travel across WhatsApp's underlying network. This network has very particular characteristics, such as the presence of public groups, that directly connect communities of people who would otherwise be distant," says Pedro O.S. Vaz de Melo, one of the co-authors of the research.
"This research allowed us to understand how quickly information can travel across WhatsApp's underlying network"
In the groups analyzed, users shared "all kinds of messages related to politics, but mainly texts, images and memes for or against a particular political group". Researchers monitored the groups during the election campaign period and collected the following information: the country where the message was posted, the name of the group, the user ID, the date, and the attached media files.
In total, they tracked 784,000 different images shared by users in the 60 days before and 15 days after the general election in each of the three countries. Although nearly 80% of the images were sent only once, some were shared on more than 100 occasions across multiple groups.
Most content shared in these groups contains misinformation, according to the researchers. For example, a fact-checking agency in Brazil verified the 61 main images shared in these groups and found that only 10% of them were true. Added to this problem is that the propagation of this type of content can last for weeks. Although 80% of the images were no longer shared after two days, some continued to be sent to the groups more than two months after their first appearance.
After collecting data from these public groups, researchers built a network to simulate and compare how the information would be propagated using different WhatsApp configurations—for example, with the forwarding limit set to five, 20, or 256 contacts. They found that limiting forwarding to five contacts slows the spread of content. But they don't stop him completely. Especially when it comes to highly viral content. The dissemination of such messages, according to the researchers, "continues to be faster than the dissemination of mildly viral information when there is no limit".
"Forwarding and transmission limits can reduce the broadcast speed by up to an order of magnitude, especially on larger networks, such as india. For smaller networks, as in Indonesia, the results are not so surprising. That is, the speed reduction is very limited," explains Vaz de Melo.
Researchers argue that the closed nature of WhatsApp and the ease of sharing information in groups with a large number of users make it difficult to combat the dissemination of false information. WhatsApp explains that the limits you have set have significantly reduced the number of messages forwarded by users. A company spokesman has explained to the New Scientist that "nine out of 10 whatsapp messages are sent between two people and the average group has less than 10 people": "Looking at only the types of groups within the study lose the most people use WhatsApp."