How WhatsApp Is Fighting Misinformation in Brazil

By Chris Daniels, VP, WhatsApp

Every day millions of Brazilians trust WhatsApp with their most private conversations — whether it’s chatting to friends about work issues, talking to a teacher about their child’s grades, getting medical advice from a doctor, discussing politics with their families or even reporting a crime to the police. People value this sense of privacy and intimacy — which we’ve worked hard to maintain even as WhatsApp has grown.

Today, over 90% of messages sent on WhatsApp in Brazil are individual, one-on-one conversations. The majority of groups are about just six people — a conversation so private and personal that it would fit in your living room. And because we limit group sizes, you’d need to create over 4,000 individual groups to reach a million people. This is very different from other apps that are designed as broadcast platforms (rather like a global public square) where you can reach an audience of millions at the push of a button.

To maintain this feeling of intimacy on WhatsApp, we started testing a limit on the number of messages one person can forward to 20 people earlier this year. Previously you could forward messages to everyone in your address book. This change was based on feedback that people sometimes felt overwhelmed by the volume of messages, as well as concerns about viral misinformation.

So it was not surprising that when some politicians declared last week that they would fight to increase WhatsApp’s limit on forwarded messages from 20 to 200 people, others called on WhatsApp to do just the opposite: lower the limit even further. This debate brought into focus an ongoing tension that is currently playing out in Brazil and that speaks to a larger reality: when you connect over a billion people across countries and cultures, you’ll see all of the good that humanity can do, as well as some misuse.

While the desire to spread and consume sometimes harmful sensational information pre-dates the Internet, it certainly makes it easier. And because information — both good and bad — can go viral on WhatsApp even with these limits in place, we have a responsibility to amplify the good and mitigate the harm.

This is especially true when it comes to elections. Free and fair elections are the heart of every democracy and misinformation can be a real challenge. And here’s what we’re doing to address it:

  • We’re removing hundreds of thousands of accounts for spam. Bad actors use computers to generate this in bulk. But with advances in artificial intelligence, we now block thousands of these accounts every day as they are being created so they can’t be used to spread spam and false news.
  • We’re labeling messages that are forwarded. In addition to the limits we introduced earlier this year, we now label messages to make it clear when a message has been forwarded. This helps people understand that the content was not written by the person who sent it to them.
  • We’re giving admins much more control over the groups they create. For example, admins can now decide who gets to send messages. We’ve also made changes to prevent people repeatedly being added back into groups they’ve left.
  • We are working with fact checking organizations in Brazil, like Comprova, which involves 24 media organizations in Brazil. They have received tens of thousands of messages with fact checking requests via WhatsApp. We’re also working with organizations like Enois Conteudo, a journalism school, to trains students to debunk political rumors in their own WhatsApp family and friends groups. (Updated October 27, 2018 to reflect original text in Portuguese.)
  • We’re raising awareness. Our large-scale public education campaign — “Share Facts. Not Rumors” — is designed to reach 50 million Brazilians with tips on how to spot fake news and prevent its spread. We’re also working with InternetLab to create educational videos on how to use WhatsApp in a safe and responsible way, including proper etiquette in WA family groups and thinking before you share.
  • We’re working with law enforcement. We’ve engaged 1,400 police, prosecutors and judicial authorities across 10 cities, and 600 authorities at electoral courts, on the right procedures for requesting information during their investigations. This information is limited and does not include messages, because WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted. However, the limited information we can provide has helped law enforcement prevent and solve crimes. We’ve also engaged political parties and all 13 presidential campaigns in Brazil on how to use WhatsApp responsibly during the election.

Fighting misinformation is an ongoing challenge for society. It will take all of us — from technology companies to civil society, government and users — to make progress. WhatsApp is committed to this challenge.

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