In a bid to combat the scourge of misinformation, the popular instant messaging app WhatsApp is now placing a ceiling on the number of recipients to whom users can forward messages.
The technology company announced this new measure at an event in Jakarta, where misinformation has become a significant challenge. From health scares, rumours of child abductions, and most prominently, “black campaigns” during election periods, Indonesia has battled hoaxes for many years.
As the nation prepares for presidential elections on 17 April and the spectre of hoax campaigns once again rears its head, WhatsApp’s new policy will only be minimally helpful in combating these challenges.
The number of users a hoax can reach is less crucial than how the targeted audience responds.
Misinformation refers to information that is false but mistakenly believed by those disseminating it to be true. And private chat groups like WhatsApp are becoming an important source of misinformation for ordinary Indonesians. A 2018 study of 37 countries by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that the use of messenger apps such as WhatsApp for news has increased. In the city of Meerut in India, for example, around 70 of 272 Muslim seminaries rejected attempts by health officials to administer vaccinations after rumours that the vaccine could result in impotence spread over WhatsApp.
WhatsApp believes that by limiting the number of times a user can forward a message to five chats, content can be limited to close contacts. But messages can still be forwarded to group chats, which can have up to 256 users each, meaning a total of 1280 people would still be able to receive the messages despite the new curb. And many Indonesians own more than one mobile phone, each with a different WhatsApp account.
Also, the number of users a hoax can reach is less crucial than how the targeted audience responds.
Misinformation tends to be emotive and has an impact on a specific segment of society which may take action in response. Rumours of child abduction in Indonesia in 2017, for instance, were taken seriously by concerned mothers, who responded by forwarding the messages without proper fact-checking. Suspected kidnappers were lynched by mobs in parts of Indonesia. Restricting dissemination of content, therefore, does not mean that hoaxes will be unable to reach their intended audience. WhatsApp has not released any estimates of how much their new measure will reduce the dissemination of hoaxes.
More crucial, however, is the fact that the act of dissemination is often accompanied by intangible psychological sentiments that are difficult to curb through altering the user interface alone.
Users of private chat groups are bonded together by a social trust that encourages greater sharing of information than on a more open platform and greater faith in the accuracy of the information. In Indonesia, the mass media and even “open” forms of social media such as Facebook and Twitter are regarded as partisan. Media scholar Ross Tapsell has argued that Indonesians increasingly prefer to get views and opinions from personal networks and regard communication from the government and mainstream media as less trustworthy.
WhatsApp’s curbing measure won’t prevent communication for the purpose of organising activities. This is particularly salient in the case of disinformation, which media researcher Claire Wardle refers to as information that is false and the person disseminating it is aware it is false.
The Muslim Cyber Army (MCA), a loose-knit group of tech-savvy conservative Islamist activists who premise their activities on defending the interests of Islam and Islamic religious leaders, was reported to have been coordinated through a WhatsApp chat group called The Family MCA, which directed its members to disseminate sectarian and racist views and even computer viruses to targeted individuals.
The battle against misinformation and disinformation must be fought outside the digital architecture.
Establishing social norms such as responsible information sharing in private messaging networks is one way of addressing the hoax challenge. Administrators of encrypted private chat groups could, for instance, alert members to false content and encourage fact-checking of content before sharing. Anyone who is in a private chat group and sees a hoax should also feel empowered to alert others. This could be facilitated by existing fact-checking and media literacy initiatives such as the Masyarakat Anti-Fitnah Indonesia (Mafindo) and Siberkreasi being taught in schools and communities all over Indonesia.
Intentionally cultivating a society that is more aware of what constitutes misinformation and that takes active measures to call it out will by no means eradicate misinformation, but will certainly be a step forward.