WhatsApp appears to be testing a new feature aimed at trying to limit the spread of chain letter style spam messages and tackle viral fakes spreading on its platform.
Two WhatsApp blog sites, Whatsappen.nl and WABetaInfo, report spotting notification messages in the app which appear intended to warns users that they are at risk of forwarding some spam — by displaying a notice that the message “has been forwarded many times”.
A similar warning is also shown displayed on a frequently forwarded message when it’s received, although the feature is described as still in development and it’s not clear whether WhatsApp intends to officially roll it out or not (WhatsApp owner Facebook frequently experiments with feature tweaks on its messaging products, especially in international markets; and — safe to say — not all its tests end up officially baked into the product).
At the time of writing the company had not responded to our requests for confirmation that it’s testing the anti-spam feature. Update: A WhatsApp spokesman declined to comment.
Chain letter messages that contain — at best — nonsense claims, and which urge other WhatApp users to forward the message to all their contacts to keep amplifying the spread are a staple sight on the platform (and indeed also on Facebook where users can get asked to copy-paste and repost a spam status message to spread it).
Such as the below example — which was circulating on the WhatsApp of a UK TechCrunch editor’s child — which creatively reimagines the CEO of the company as an individual called ‘Jim Balsamic’…
While these sorts of chain letters might seem like a pretty trivial form of fake news to worry about, the problem of false rumors spreading like lightning across WhatsApp’s platform has been linked to far more serious consequences.
In India, for example, fake rumors have reportedly triggered mob attacks that resulted in deaths and injuries.
Religious and caste tensions in India and Burma have also been stoked by fake posts spread via social media, as the Washington Post reported recently.
Other fake rumors spread via WhatsApp apparently thwarted a local government immunization drive.
Last year Facebook took out full page adverts in Indian newspapers telling people how to spot fake news (something it also did in Europe ahead of elections).
The problem is the people most likely to be convinced by false information are unlikely to be the same people buying and reading newspapers.
So stepping up technical anti-spam measures on its platforms to try to slow the spread of viral fakes seems like the responsible thing for the company to do given the very real risks attached to how its technology is accelerating misinformation.