Owned by Facebook, WhatsApp has more than 1.5 billion users worldwide Image Credit: AP

Should the world worry about WhatsApp? Has it become a virulent new force in global misinformation and political trickery? Or, rather, should the world rejoice about WhatsApp? After all, hasn’t it provided a way for people everywhere to communicate securely with encrypted messages, beyond the reach of government surveillance?

These are deep and complicated questions. But the answer to all of them is simple: Yes.

In recent months, the messaging app, which is owned by Facebook and has more than 1.5 billion users worldwide, has raised frightening new political and social dynamics. In Brazil, which is in a bruising national election campaign, WhatsApp has become a primary vector for conspiracy theories and other political misinformation. WhatsApp played a similar role in Kenya’s election last year. In India this year, false messages about child kidnappers went viral on WhatsApp, leading to mob violence that has killed dozens of people.

WhatsApp said it was working to reduce the spread of misinformation on the service. Critics charge that it is not doing enough — and there is some merit to their claims. Yet the deeper you dig into the problems, the more intractable they can come to seem, even if the company were moving heaven and earth to fix them.

Unlike Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, WhatsApp isn’t a social network. It is mostly a bare-bones texting app in which most conversations are private and unmediated by any kind of algorithm meant to amp up engagement. This design means WhatsApp has little control over what content takes off and what doesn’t; in most cases, the company cannot even see what is happening on WhatsApp because the service encrypts messages automatically.

That means the real problem may be not so much WhatsApp the company or WhatsApp the product but something more fundamental — WhatsApp the idea.

When you offer everyone access to free and private communication, lots of wonderful things may happen — and WhatsApp has been a godsend to vulnerable populations like migrants, dissidents and political activists. But a lot of terrible things are bound to happen, too — and it might be impossible to eliminate the bad without muzzling the good.

In this light, WhatsApp is a powerful and permanent new reality and its problems aren’t likely to be solved as much as fitfully and sometimes unsatisfyingly managed. For better or worse, we are going to have to learn to live with it.

“I thought WhatsApp would be a very dark place, a wild place, where all these conspiracy theories would be spreading and we wouldn’t know what they were talking about,” said Yasodara Cordova, a fellow at DigitalHKS, a centre at Harvard’s Kennedy School that examines the role digital technologies play in government. Cordova has been working on Comprova, a fact-checking project to monitor social media sites during Brazil’s election.

“But what I learned is that the stories on WhatsApp are common to all the media here,” she said.

What sets WhatsApp apart is speed and reach, Cordova said. In Brazil, more than 120 million people use the service, which is offered free as part of mobile internet plans (that is, using WhatsApp does not count against people’s data rate). As it does in its other big markets — India, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and much of Europe — WhatsApp functions in Brazil as an all-purpose communications tool. It is used for chatting and joking, for trading photos and memes, for news, for political activity and more.

Because of that centrality, Cordova argued, the problems on WhatsApp in Brazil were mainly a function of the country’s broken political and media environment.

“For example, we don’t really have public libraries in Brazil,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of sources of what people would consider reliable information — and the lack of good sources of information reinforces their beliefs when they see something false on WhatsApp or Facebook.”

Which is not to say WhatsApp is without tools to rein in the mess. This year, after the mob violence in India — another problem that existed before WhatsApp and may simply have been amplified by the app — the company instituted rules to limit WhatsApp’s “virality.”

In the past, people could freely forward a WhatsApp message to anyone. Now they are restricted to forwarding a message to 20 “chats”, distinct conversations with an individual or group of up to 256 people. (There are six people in the average group, WhatsApp said.) In India, WhatsApp has an even more restrictive forwarding limit: five chats.

WhatsApp characterised the limits as an experiment. As the company learns more about how the limits affect users’ behavior, a spokeswoman told me, it could introduce additional fine-grain limits.

It is precisely WhatsApp’s close-knit sensibility that makes rumours on the service so pernicious. Familiarity on WhatsApp breeds trust, which most of the time is a pretty great social good. But in fast-moving situations with high stakes — natural disasters, wars, terrorist attacks or elections — trust on WhatsApp is turned on its head, becoming a key force behind viral falsity.

That was the finding, at least, of a 2016 study by Tomer Simon, a researcher at Tel Aviv University who looked at how people used the internet during emergencies.

Simon’s study concerned the kidnapping, in the summer of 2014, of three Israeli teenagers who were hitchhiking in the West Bank. The kidnapping led to an enormous Israeli military incursion into the West Bank; the boys were found dead over two weeks later.

The Israeli military had instituted a gag order on press reports of the kidnapping, but on WhatsApp, Israelis began circulating stories about “something” being up. Through careful field research, Simon collected and sought to identify the source of many rumours that spread on WhatsApp in the earliest hours after the kidnapping.

The rumours, Simon found, had a remarkable amount of detail. Several included the names of the kidnapped boys, which had not been made public. A few offered key facts about the search. And at least one of the rumours seemed deliberately intended to deceive — it said the boys had been rescued and that the militants who kidnapped them were killed.

Simon tracked down the rumours to a surprising source: journalists and other civilians who had been briefed on the operation and who had used WhatsApp to leak details to their families or colleagues in small groups they assumed were private.

The rumour that said the boys had been rescued was the most widely circulated. Of the people Simon interviewed, “two shared it only with one family member, two shared it with their WhatsApp family group, one shared it with an IDF officers’ WhatsApp group, one first-responder shared it verbally with his colleagues during his shift and one refused to answer the question,” he wrote, referring to the Israeli Defense Forces by the initials.

The story here isn’t of malicious and indiscriminate rumour-mongering, Simon told me. It is, rather, a story of a few people who trusted other people, who in turn trusted others, each passing along what he or she considered important and necessary information to friends and colleagues.

It’s a story of human nature. And that’s why, beyond learning to inhibit our natural tendency to share, it’s hard to know what can be done about false news on WhatsApp — other than bracing yourself for more.

–New York Times News Service