In an ideal world, where common sense and rationality reign supreme over the human tendency to conflate and spread highly misinterpreted facts and/or straight-up lies, major tech companies would get to rest easy that their channels would be used for only the benefit of educating the masses with useful and factually accurate information.
Unfortunately, the advent of social media, which gives any user the platform to perpetuate and bolster spurious news (read: “fake news”) has seen major presences like Facebook, and more notably its recently acquired sibling, instant messaging platform Whatsapp, increasingly be used to blindly forward blatantly inaccurate and deliberately harmful links and articles to potentially anyone they like.
This practice has, unsurprisingly, led to a widespread backlash against the heads of social media companies, especially Whatsapp because of its large user base and instant forwarding capabilities (which translate to more misinformation more easily and quickly spread) have led to countless senseless articles, ranging from so-called cures for COVID-19 to ridiculous claims of government conspiracies behind the pandemic in recent months.
Just a few months ago, in response to this, Whatsapp implementing a clever ‘cooldown period’ against forwarding the same link to multiple contacts, in the effort to dissuade users from spamming the potentially fake news too frequently.
The efficiency of this update is debatable, but in a further effort to give users access to fact-checking tools while receiving a new, controversial news link, the app is now slated to implement a new “search the web” feature that, from what is claimed, will function by providing an external window that will cross-check the title and contents against similarly marked search engine results which, hopefully, will guide the user to check out more trustworthy and reliable news sources and hence give them a screen to fact-check the article against better-reputed sources before forwarding it to others.
In a recent official blog post, Whatsapp claims that it will never view the contents of any message, for privacy’s sake, but will instead simply redirect the message in question through its browser for the user to verify on their own. While the feature is still in pilot mode, it will be released soon (it must be noted the feature is only limited to words and text, not images or video).
The limitations of this turn of events are apparent even in theory. It seems that this measure is Whatsapp’s attempt to be held less accountable for fact-checking, as it saves the company of individually and painstakingly checking every single news claim and lets the onus of verification lie mainly on the user base rather than the companies itself.
Furthermore, the feature, while useful for many ‘conscientious’ users who would strive to put the effort into maximizing the trustworthiness of their forwarded links, may just be another measure to actively ignore by less cognizant users. After all, if your favorite platform is just the word of other Whatsapp users, over established news platforms like, suppose, the BBC, why would you even go out of the way to authenticate the veracity of your link in the first place?
Perhaps it is a tad unfair to lay the burden of proof on the messenger rather than the claimant in every single case. However, it must be remembered that this unprecedented level of uncertainty and unrest the COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in has led to the need for truthful and unbiased news sources like never before, lest the spurious claims of exaggeration and misinformation further harm a world full of gullible social media users. Only time will tell how effective Whatsapp’s new features will be.