WhatsApp, Linked to Mob Beatings and Lynchings, Restricts Text Forwarding

WhatsApp is changing how users forward messages as the app is being linked to rising hysteria, violence and mob beatings facilitated by the rapid spread of false news.

The Facebook-owned platform announced this week that it would limit the number of messages that could be forwarded in bulk. Previously set at 250 recipients, users will now be restricted to 20 people. In India, where content is forwarded more than any other country, the app will be limited to five chats at once. Furthermore, a "quick forward" button has been removed.

Speculation spread via WhatsApp—often involving reports of child kidnapping—has been tied to a spate of killings in recent months across India. Fake videos of abductions have been going viral in the region, and police appear to be struggling to contain the social media–led outbursts of violence, often involving huge mobs. In some cases, local internet has been shut down.

WhatsApp has said that it is "horrified" by the ongoing situation. A spokesperson told Recode on Thursday, "We've announced a number of different product changes to help address these issues, it's a challenge which requires an action by civil society, government and tech companies."

On Monday, Indian police detained more than two dozen people after three men were swarmed by a mob of roughly 2,000 individuals. WhatsApp messages accusing them of trying to kidnap schoolgirls had quickly spread. One man arrested was a group admin, CNN reported.

In another case, on June 11, police detained more than a dozen people after two men who stopped to ask for directions were beaten to death by a mob. As the BBC reported, recent victims have also included a transgender woman and a man who was visiting his relatives.

The same month, the chat application was reportedly used to spread false rumors that a gang of people disguised as beggars were killing people in order to harvest their organs.

Last year, WhatsApp was being used by 200 million monthly active users in India.

In a Thursday blog post announcing the updates, WhatsApp said, "We believe that these changes—which we'll continue to evaluate—will help keep WhatsApp the way it was designed to be: A private messaging app." It added: "We are deeply committed to your safety and privacy which is why WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted, and we'll continue to improve our app with features."

Facebook was previously linked to violence against the Rohingya ethnic group in Myanmar. The platform's CEO Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly been questioned by activists and government bodies about how his social networking services facilitated the crisis.

In April, he promised critics that Facebook would improve its artificial intelligence, tools and capabilities to "better identify abusive, hateful or false content even before it is flagged by our community."

WhatsApp did not immediately respond to a request for comment.