Privacy Concerns around WhatsApp

“WhatsApp is the root cause of all this fake news!”

“WhatsApp is the reason why we’re seeing all this happen!”

“People spend entire days just messaging on WhatsApp!”

I’m sure all of you have heard these from time to time. With the severe impact WhatsApp has on our lives, it is obvious that it would have to face some malign.

Let’s look at how all this started and how we can act to prevent fake news from spreading.

The fake news menace

Over the last couple of years, every so often, we see WhatsApp in the news for the wrong reasons. The most horrific of them were the lynchings that happened after fake news went viral on WhatsApp. Several people were critically injured in these lynchings.

Not just these major events, but even in our personal chats, we tend to respond to a message before verifying the contents of an image. It is very easy to see a message, build an opinion around it, and share it with fellow friends.

The creators of fake messages are smart. These people tweak messages so that they’re believable and make it very tempting for you to share them. Most of the messages have a real background to them. The creators slyly tweak some of the facts, giving events a ‘real’ appearance which you’ll very likely believe. Since the general audience doesn’t care to verify facts, such messages spread across the country.

The government has asked WhatsApp to step up and stop the fake news menace. But the problem is not as easy as merely telling WhatsApp to stop the spread of fake news.

WhatsApp is an end-to-end encrypted system. What this means is no one apart from the sender and receiver can see a message. While other social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, etc. are not fully encrypted, WhatsApp has always highlighted how it respects users’ privacy by providing end-to-end encryption. This is clearly reflected in their terms of service.

If WhatsApp starts to read your messages to verify what is fake and what is not, that would be violating their terms of service. If WhatsApp doesn’t read your messages, determining fake messages is extremely hard.

As a result, the company’s choices are very limited. It cannot make a change one day and expect it to solve the fake news problem right away.

But WhatsApp is taking measures to solve this problem.

What is WhatsApp doing?

Earlier this year, the company started limiting the ‘virality’ of a message on WhatsApp. They cut down the number of times you can forward a message to your contacts to 5. This means, even if you have a group of 256 people (which is the maximum number of people in a group), your message could reach at most 1280 people.

Now you might say that this doesn’t solve the problem. These 1280 people can still forward the messages to their contacts, thus increasing the likelihood of spreading a fake message.

But let’s compare that number with what was previously possible. In 2018, each person could forward a message to 256 contacts, and each group could have 256 people in it. This meant that one person’s messages could reach 65536 people.

Comparing the numbers, it becomes evident that limiting the virality would help reduce the spread of messages in general. This makes sense for the long-term health of WhatsApp too, since it is primarily a private messaging service. It is not meant to be used as a viral sharing platform, like Twitter and Facebook.

What can we do to curb fake news?

There is no one answer that will solve all the problems. We as users could do a few things to curb the spread of fake news. Some simple things that come to mind –

  • Verify the information you get in a forwarded message before forwarding it. The easiest way to do this is by searching the same information on Google and viewing some of the first few links.
  • There are new fact-checking websites coming up these days, which can be used to verify the information. For example, Boomlive runs fact checks around social media content.
  • Do not share content if you don’t have to. Simply thinking if something is valuable to the recipient will help you think.

What do you think are good ways to curb fake news? Please subscribe to my email list to read similar stories.

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