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WhatsApp pilots new fact-check feature to spot fake news

Hacking software used Facebook’s WhatsApp to take over users’ phones, say sources. PHOTO: REUTERS. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

SINGAPORE, Aug 5, 2020, ST. Popular messaging service WhatsApp has stepped up the fight against disinformation and fake news by rolling out a new feature to allow users to check the contents of viral messages, The Straits Times reported.

The fact-check feature will appear as a magnifying glass icon next to messages that have been forwarded through five or more people.

Tapping on the icon will allow users to upload the message onto their Web browser to perform Google searches for related news, so users can do their fact-checking – without WhatsApp ever seeing the message itself.

For instance, a screenshot on the WhatsApp blog shows that the feature will allow a message containing the claim that “drinking fresh boiled garlic water will cure Covid-19” to bring up three fact-checking websites stating that it is false.

“We’re piloting a simple way to double-check these messages by tapping a magnifying glass button in the chat,” said WhatsApp in announcing the move on its blog on Monday (Aug 3).

“Providing a simple way to search messages that have been forwarded many times may help people find news results or other sources of information about content they have received.”

The feature will be rolled out as a pilot initially in seven countries: Brazil, Italy, Ireland, Mexico, Spain, Britain and the United States. Users need to download the latest version of the app.

Asked when the feature will be available for users in Singapore, a spokesman here told The Straits Times: “We will be closely monitoring this pilot and will make any decisions on future phases based on user feedback to both WhatsApp and Google.”

It is the latest attempt by WhatsApp, which has 2 billion users worldwide, to slow the dissemination of fake news.

Earlier this year, WhatsApp tightened global limits on the forwarding of messages that had not come from a close contact to only a single chat at a time. The previous limit, introduced last year, was five chats.

The limit has been tightened gradually over the last two years. In 2018, the limit was 20 chats. Before that, users were able to forward a message to 250 groups at once.

Widely forwarded messages can be dangerous as they often come with the implicit approval of a friend or family member.

But cracking down on the spread of fake news on the platform has not been easy as messages are encrypted. This allows users to exchange videos, texts and images without any oversight from independent fact-checkers or even WhatsApp itself.

For instance, in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s message in March to Indians to show their appreciation for front-line medical workers by clapping and banging plates was misrepresented as a virus-beating tactic through WhatsApp.

One message on WhatsApp read: “Clapping, conch blowing by (1.3 BILLION) people at the same time will create so much vibrations that virus will lose all potency.”

The rumour was widespread enough for India’s Press Information Bureau’s fact-checking team to respond: “No! The vibration generated by clapping together will NOT destroy #Coronavirus infection.”

Fact-checkers and medical experts were concerned that false information online would hinder India’s efforts to control the pandemic.

In Singapore, government agencies debunked about 40 instances of speculation, rumours, scams and outright falsehoods about the Covid-19 outbreak over all social media platforms in the first five months of 2020.

The clarifications were conveyed through the media, on government websites, social media and the Gov.sg channel on WhatsApp and Telegram.

WhatsApp’s parent firm Facebook has also been the subject of global scrutiny over its role in the spread of fake news and disinformation.

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