WhatsApp Limits Viral Message Sharing in Bid to Stop Spread of Coronavirus Misinformation

Popular messaging platform WhatsApp has announced the introduction of a new limit on forwarding messages in a bid to slow the spread of misinformation amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

From Tuesday onwards, users will only be able to forward certain viral messages—those forwarded five or more times by others—to one chat at a time, according to a WhatsApp blog post.

"Is all forwarding bad? Certainly not," the blog post read. "We know many users forward helpful information, as well as funny videos, memes, and reflections or prayers they find meaningful. In recent weeks, people have also used WhatsApp to organize public moments of support for frontline health workers."

"However, we've seen a significant increase in the amount of forwarding which users have told us can feel overwhelming and can contribute to the spread of misinformation. We believe it's important to slow the spread of these messages down to keep WhatsApp a place for personal conversation."

While it is relatively easy to get around the limit by sending the same message to several different chats separately, the Facebook-owned platform hopes that the latest measures will put a brake on how quickly misinformation is able to spread

With millions of people around the world locked up at home during the pandemic, the use of messaging platforms has become more important than ever as our social lives move online.

However, WhatsApp has come under scrutiny during the past few weeks over the ease with which false information—for example, unproven cures for COVID-19—can spread on the platform.

The Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, was one of those who has criticized the platform in recent weeks saying in a Twitter post: "I am urging everyone to please stop sharing unverified info on WhatsApp groups. These messages are scaring and confusing people and causing real damage. Please get your info from official, trusted sources."

The latest measure from WhatsApp is similar to one introduced last year, which prevented users from forwarding a message to more than five chats at a time.

In this photo illustration, the WhatsApp logo is displayed on the screen of an iPhone in front of a TV screen displaying the WhatsApp logo on December 10, 2019 in Paris, France. Chesnot/Getty Images

"As a private messaging service, we've taken several steps over the years to help keep conversations intimate. For example, we previously set limits on forwarded messages to constrain virality, which led to a 25 percent decrease in message forwards globally at the time," the blog post read.

"We believe that now more than ever people need to be able to connect privately. Our teams are hard at work to keep WhatsApp running reliably during this unprecedented global crisis. We'll continue to listen to your feedback and improve ways for people to share with each other on WhatsApp."

Last month, WhatsApp—which has more than two billion users around the world—announced the launch of a bot service, in partnership with the World Health Organization, which can provide users with reliable information about the pandemic, 24 hours a day.

World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Hygiene advice

  • Clean hands frequently with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Wash hands after coughing or sneezing; when caring for the sick; before, during and after food preparation; before eating; after using the toilet; when hands are visibly dirty; and after handling animals or waste.
  • Maintain at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your hands, nose and mouth. Do not spit in public.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or bent elbow when coughing or sneezing. Discard the tissue immediately and clean your hands.

Medical advice

  • Avoid close contact with others if you have any symptoms.
  • Stay at home if you feel unwell, even with mild symptoms such as headache and runny nose, to avoid potential spread of the disease to medical facilities and other people.
  • If you develop serious symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) seek medical care early and contact local health authorities in advance.
  • Note any recent contact with others and travel details to provide to authorities who can trace and prevent spread of the disease.
  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.

Mask and glove usage

  • Healthy individuals only need to wear a mask if taking care of a sick person.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning.
  • Do not touch the mask while wearing it. Clean hands if you touch the mask.
  • Learn how to properly put on, remove and dispose of masks. Clean hands after disposing of the mask.
  • Do not reuse single-use masks.
  • Regularly washing bare hands is more effective against catching COVID-19 than wearing rubber gloves.
  • The COVID-19 virus can still be picked up on rubber gloves and transmitted by touching your face.