WhatsApp users will be blocked from forwarding messages to more than five recipients in order to fight the spread of fake news according to vice-president for policy and communications, Victoria Grand.
The five-recipient limit was initially put in place in India last July. A larger limit, of 20 recipients, was put in place globally. WhatsApp said at the time the limits would “help keep WhatsApp the way it was designed to be: a private messaging app”.
Carl Woog, the head of communications at WhatsApp, told the Guardian on Monday: “We settled on five because we believe this is a reasonable number to reach close friends while helping prevent abuse.”
The limit was introduced last summer along with another feature to clearly label forwarded messages and the removal of a quick-forward button next to images, video and audio clips. The company says the measures reduced forwarding by 25% globally and more than that in India, which had one of the highest forwarding rates in the world.
WhatsApp’s message-forwarding mechanics have been blamed for helping the spread of fake news in part because of the way the app displays forwarded messages. A text message that has been forwarded to a new recipient is marked as forwarded in light grey text but otherwise appears indistinguishable from an original message sent by a contact. Critics say the design “strips away the identity of the sender and allow messages to spread virally with little accountability”.
Others had called on Facebook, which bought WhatsApp for $18bn in 2014, to limit forwarding globally. In an opinion piece published in the New York Times in the run-up to the 2018 Brazilian election, in which WhatsApp-powered misinformation was widely thought to have affected the result, three academics called on the company to introduce the five-recipient limit globally.
They said Facebook should restrict broadcasts so that a single user cannot text hundreds of others at once, and limit the size of new groups during the electoral period.