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How WhatsApp is making it more expensive to spread misinformation

Limits on forwarding work — and iMessage should consider copying them

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

We always have at least some reason to worry about the spread of misinformation, but we worry more about misinformation during a public health crisis. We are generally not well informed on public health issues even in good times, and so the emergence of new disease to which the human race has no natural immunity presents an incredible target for bad actors.

For example, if for whatever reason you are opposed to new 5G cellular networks, you could go on social networks and make a lot of posts suggesting that 5G networks are making the spread of the virus worse. Or you could say that 5G itself is causing COVID-19. Or you could say that the pandemic itself is a hoax, and that talk of a virus is intended to cover up the installation of 5G equipment. And if you said it often enough, and your posts got enough traction, then eventually the fringe press would write up your claims, and the misinformation would rapidly move into the mainstream.

In the United Kingdom last month, in the days after the government ordered citizens to remain in their homes, this is more or less exactly what happened. Some people are setting telephone poles on fire in an utterly misguided effort to fight back against 5G. Jim Waterson and Alex Hern talked to fact-checkers about the situation in the Guardian:

They cite the rapid growth of neighbourhood social media groups, a failure by networks to promote scientific evidence about 5G, and a terrified population looking to make sense of a world turned upside down. [...]

Tom Phillips, the editor of the factchecking organisation Full Fact, said it warned last summer about the growing prevalence of 5G health claims. But in recent weeks debunked claims about 5G had been transformed, potentially aided by the creation of new local Facebook and WhatsApp groups to help support neighbours during the pandemic. Google Trends data suggests British interest in 5G theories exploded in the final days of March, shortly after the lockdown was imposed.

Let’s stipulate that fringe theories like these don’t exist only on social networks — and that, as the piece argues, telecoms should be doing a much better job at explaining to people what 5G is and isn’t. (Here’s a good overview from my colleague Chaim Gartenberg.)

But it’s clear that, as usual, social networks are amplifying some of these theories and helping them gain a foothold in the popular imagination. If you’re Facebook, you can throw a bunch of fact-checkers and content moderators at the issue to remove viral posts and attempt to deny other fringe voices undue algorithmic promotion. But if the subject is Facebook-owned WhatsApp, the solution is murkier.

WhatsApp, after all, uses end-to-end encryption. In practice, this means WhatsApp itself can’t peer into the contents of your message. There are obvious privacy benefits to an app like this, particularly in a world where far-right authoritarianism is on the rise. Will Cathcart, who runs WhatsApp, told me this week that WhatsApp’s commitment to privacy feels even more urgent in a pandemic-stricken world where nearly all of our communication is mediated digitally. (As an aside, the entire story of the recent Zoom backlash is that the product’s design enabled far too many strangers to interrupt your call.)

“Part of what WhatsApp is trying to do is make what you used to do face to face possible,” Cathcart told me. “Part of that is privacy.”

If we were talking face to face, he told me over Zoom, we probably wouldn’t worry too much about someone spying on us. On a digital call, though, spying becomes a much bigger concern.

If all WhatsApp did was enable texts, calls, and chats, that would be the end of the story. But from the beginning, the app has had a feature that — in at least some parts of the world — transformed it into something that more closely resembles a social network like Facebook. That feature is the forward button, and I wrote about its history today at The Verge:

For much of WhatsApp’s existence, it was easy for users to forward a single message to as many as 256 people with just a few taps. Initially, these messages were not labeled as forwards, and the end-to-end encryption in WhatsApp could make it almost impossible for authorities to determine who might be using the app to spread hate speech or calls to violence. This triggered a crisis in India, where WhatsApp was linked to mob violence.

In 2018, WhatsApp began experimenting with limits on the number of times a message could be forwarded. It also began labeling forwarded messages for the first time, and adding two arrows to show that a message has been repeatedly forwarded. Last year, the company began limiting the number of people you can forward a single message to to five.

The occasion for my piece was the news that WhatsApp has taken another step down the path to removing the app’s broadcast features: as of today, you can forward what the company calls a “highly forwarded message” — one that it is at least five forwards away from its point of origin — to just a single person.

As I note in the story, this is a soft limit. You can forward a highly forwarded message more than once — just to one person at a time. (You could also just copy and paste it repeatedly.) But the amount of friction is meaningful. It effectively raises the “price” of using WhatsApp to spread misinformation, at least in terms of time. Misinformation will still spread on WhatsApp, just as it spreads on all messaging services. But it will spread more slowly — and give fact-checkers more time to chase down the truth and promote it.

This strikes me as a healthy balance. In fact, I’d say it’s a healthier balance than now exists on Apple’s iMessage — another app that uses end-to-end encryption and enables mass forwarding, and is used by more than 1 billion people. Signal, the upstart messaging app funded by WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton, uses the same scheme.

On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that a group of Democratic senators sent a letter to WhatsApp asking that it do more to curb the spread of misinformation. But I hope the senators recognize that WhatsApp isn’t the only popular encrypted messenger on the market — and that it’s making moves that its competitors would do well to copy.

The Ratio

Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.

⬆️Trending up: Facebook is giving these 400 local newsrooms grants of $5,000 each to support their coronavirus reporting as part of the Facebook Journalism Project. The company also announced a relief fund for local newsrooms struggling with the pandemic. These relief grants range from $25,000 to $100,000.

⬆️Trending up: Jack Dorsey announced he is moving $1 billion of his Square equity—roughly 28 percent of his wealth — to Startsmall LLC to fund COVID-19 relief and other efforts. Once the pandemic is under control he plans to shift the focus of the donations to girl’s health and education, as well as universal basic income.

Trending sideways: Amazon is giving partial pay to employees it sends home for showing up with a fever. Amazon is really on a run of doing almost right thing, just a few days after everyone expected they might.

Pandemic

Amazon has started disciplining warehouse workers who violate social distancing rules, which mandate that they stay 6 feet away from their colleagues in order to limit the spread of the coronavirus. If workers are caught twice breaking the rules, they may get fired. Here’s Annie Palmer at CNBC:

It’s unclear how Amazon is identifying employees who have violated the rules. In a blog post published last week, Dave Clark, who runs Amazon’s retail operations, said the company would use its “top machine learning technologists” to detect areas where it can improve social distancing in its facilities by relying on internal camera systems.

Three Amazon warehouse workers who asked to remain anonymous said they were told by site leadership that their facilities would identify individuals as they see them violate the rules, as well as by reviewing camera footage. The workers also expressed concerns that the policy would be unfairly applied to floor associates and not site leadership.

Amazon keeps changing the definition of what it considers an “essential product.” While the company originally said it would de-prioritize less necessary items, as of April 6th you could still order a bowling ball, a 10-pack of rubber chickens, and a prom dress in the United States, and have them show up at your door within a week. And so now I know what I’m doing this weekend! (Maddy Varner / The Markup)

Amazon is postponing its major summer shopping event, Prime Day, until at least August. The company expects a potential $100 million hit from excess devices it might now have to sell at a discount. (Krystal Hu and Jeffrey Dastin / Reuters)

Some teachers are reporting that fewer than half of their students are participating in online learning. The absence rates are particularly high in schools with many low-income students, where access to home computers and internet connections can be spotty. Dana Goldstein, Adam Popescu and Nikole Hannah-Jones at The New York Times have the story:

The trend is leading to widespread concern among educators, with talk of a potential need for summer sessions, an early start in the fall, or perhaps having some or even all students repeat a grade once Americans are able to return to classrooms.

Students are struggling to connect in districts large and small. Los Angeles said last week that about a third of its high school students were not logging in for classes. And there are daunting challenges for rural communities like Minford, Ohio, where many students live in remote wooded areas unserved by internet providers.

IT contractors at Facebook have been told their physical presence is required to set up laptops for new hires and other remote employees. They have even been given letters to carry on their commutes stating that they are helping to provide “essential services” amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Sam Biddle / The Intercept)

New York has 12 times as many coronavirus deaths as California. While it seemed to some that California lawmakers overreacted in early March, the decision to implement a state-wide shelter-in-place order early now seems like a necessary move. (German Lopez / Vox)

Here’s what contact tracing, or tracking peoples’ locations via their smartphones, could look like in the US. The method, while invasive by American standards, is already working in South Korea and Singapore. (Derek Thompson / The Atlantic)

A group of disease experts is exploring using “syndromic surveillance” — tracking aggregated data from emergency rooms — to combat COVID-19. The technique was developed after 9/11 amid fears of bioterrorism. (Christina Farr / CNBC)

As government buildings throughout the US shut their doors to prevent the spread of COVID-19, many judges have moved operations online. The result is that custody hearings, bankruptcy proceedings, and abuse charges are being heard in virtual courts hosted on YouTube and Zoom. (Bloomberg)

Coronavirus has created an opportunity for tech companies to quietly lobby for long-held goals in the frantic political and economic environment created by the outbreak. Some of these involve delaying enforcement of California’s new privacy law and not reclassifying contractors as full-time employees. (David McCabe / The New York Times)

This is how coronavirus changed the way we use the internet — from the devices we stream on, to the apps we use to connect with loved ones. While Americans are spending more time online, the growth hasn’t been universal across all apps and services. (Ella Koeze and Nathaniel Popper / The New York Times)

Virus tracker

Total cases in the US: At least 380,749

Total deaths in the US: At least 11,000

Reported cases in California: 16,329

Reported cases in New York: 138,836

Reported cases in New Jersey: 41,090

Reported cases in Michigan: 17,130

Data from The New York Times.

Governing

Wisconsin voters are facing a choice between protecting their health and exercising their right to vote after state Republican leaders rebuffed the Democratic governor’s attempt to postpone in-person voting in the presidential primary. The choice offers a grim foreshadowing of an expected national fight over voting rights in the year of COVID-19. Astead W. Herndon and Jim Rutenberg at The New York Times have the story:

The state stands as a first test case in what both national parties expect to be a protracted fight over changing voter rules to contend with the pandemic — potentially the biggest voting rights battle since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Mr. Evers was trying to push Wisconsin still further toward voting by mail.

Since the pandemic first forced stay-at-home orders across the country, many Democrats have advocated a universal vote-by-mail system in November. Republicans in several states and the president himself are pushing for as much in-person voting as possible.

Taiwan banned all government personnel from using Zoom due to security concerns. It recommended that officials use conferencing software provided by Google and Microsoft instead. (Mary Hui / Quartz)

The EU is moving ahead with its artificial intelligence regulations amid coronavirus disruptions. The proposed rules involve mandatory legal requirements for self-driving cars and biometric identification systems which could force companies to test AI prior to deployment and retrain their algorithms in Europe with different datasets to guarantee users’ rights are upheld. (Natalia Drozdiak / Bloomberg)

Industry

Facial recognition company Clearview AI has deep, longstanding ties to right-wing extremists. Some even helped build the app. Luke O’Brien at HuffPost reports:

With the coronavirus pandemic increasingly throwing the country into chaos and President Donald Trump moving to expand domestic surveillance powers ― in theory, to better map disease spread ― Clearview has sought deeper inroads into government infrastructure and is now in discussions with state agencies to use its technology to track infected people, according to The Wall Street Journal. [...]

What hasn’t been reported, however, is even scarier: Exclusive documents obtained by HuffPost reveal that Ton-That, as well as several people who have done work for the company, have deep, longstanding ties to far-right extremists. Some members of this alt-right cabal went on to work for Ton-That.

Facebook quietly released a new messaging app for couples called Tuned. The app lets two people send each other text and voice messages, along with photos and songs, after adding each others’ phone numbers. People have been building various versions of this app for years, and none has been a hit so far. (Alex Heath / The Information)

Mark Zuckerberg promised Instagram founder Kevin Systrom independence. But an excerpt from Sarah Frier’s book No Filter shows that once Instagram started to compete with Facebook’s products, that independence gradually eroded. I’ll have a lot more to say about this very good book, and soon! (Sarah Frier / Bloomberg)

Facebook Gaming launched tournaments for esports amateurs in early access across the globe. The tournament feature has been in the works for a while, but the company decided to release it early to help people cope with social isolation. (Dean Takahashi / VentureBeat)

Things to do

Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.

Watch Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan interview Dr. Don Ganem, a leading infectious disease specialist, about developing treatments for COVID-19.

Read Tom Ford’s tips for looking good on video chats.

Apply for a grant to aid with coronavirus research. Or tell a scientist about it. Or donate to this effort! Cool project from Stripe co-founders Patrick and John Collison and some others.

Download yet another virtual Zoom background from this fun collection. Or this fun collection — from the Hallmark Channel!

And finally...

Talk to us

Send us tips, comments, questions, and WhatsApp forwards: casey@theverge.com and zoe@theverge.com.