WhatsApp has fueled a global disinformation crisis. Now, it’s stuck in one.


Michael Reynolds / Getty Images

After hours of WhatsApp Announce a new privacy policy To the nearly two billion people around the world who use it, rumors spread quickly and intensely.

One of the messages circulating on the platform said: “Do not accept the new WhatsApp policy.” “Once you do that, your WhatsApp account will be linked to your Facebook account and Zuckerberg can see all of your conversations.”

Another said: “In a few months, WhatsApp will release a new version that will show you ads based on your conversations.” “Don’t accept the new policy!”

Thousands of similar messages proliferated hugely on WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned instant messaging app, in the days that followed. Celebrities like Tesla CEO Elon Musk and whistleblower Edward Snowden have impressed millions of people. Rushed To download WhatsApp alternatives like Signal and Telegram.

There was only one problem: From the 4000 word policy, it was clear that the new changes only apply if people use WhatsApp to chat with companies, not private conversations with friends and family.

No, the new terms will not allow Facebook to read your WhatsApp conversations, the company has made it clear to anyone who requested this. Senior executives have been posted Long strands On Twitter and gave it Interviews To the large print runs in India, the company’s largest market. WhatsApp has spent millions buying newspaper and front page ads Drawings released Exposing rumors on its website with a big “Share to WhatsApp” button, hoping to inject some truth into the flow of disinformation that is tracking through its platform. The company has also encouraged Facebook employees to share these infographics, according to posts on the Workplace internal message board.

A WhatsApp spokesperson told BuzzFeed News: “There was a great deal of misinformation and confusion, so we are working to provide accurate information on how WhatsApp protects people’s personal conversations.” “We use our status feature to communicate directly with people on WhatsApp, in addition to posting accurate information on social media and our website in dozens of languages. Of course we have also made these resources available to people who work for our company so that they can answer questions directly to friends and family if they wish. in that “.

None of that works.

WhatsApp Books in Blog post Last week it announced that the company would delay the new privacy policy by three months. “We will do a lot to clear up misinformation about how privacy and security work on WhatsApp,” she wrote.

Thanks to everyone who contacted us. We are still working to address any confusion by communicating directly with WhatsApp users. No one’s account will be suspended or deleted on February 8th and we will restore our business plans beyond May – https://t.co/H3DeSS0QfO


For years, rumors and hoaxes have been circulating on WhatsApp It fueled a misinformation crisis In some of the most populous countries in the world like Brazil and India where the app is the primary way most people talk to each other. Now, that crisis has reached the company itself.

Trust in the platforms [at a] Claire Wardle, co-founder and director of First Draft, a nonprofit that researches misinformation, told BuzzFeed News. “Years have passed of people who have become increasingly concerned about the power of tech companies, especially awareness of the amount of data they collect about us. So when privacy policies are changed, people get anxious about what that means.”

Wardle said people are concerned that WhatsApp might link their behavior on the app with data from their Facebook accounts.

“Facebook and WhatsApp have a huge trust deficit,” said Pratek Sinha, founder of Alt News, a fact-checking platform in India. “Once you get that, any kind of misinformation attributed to you is easily consumed.”

Sinha and Wardle added that what is not helping, is the lack of understanding of ordinary people of how technology and privacy work. “Confusion is where disinformation thrives,” said Wardle, “so people saw changes in policy, and jumped to conclusions, and it’s not surprising that many people believed the rumors.”

These patterns of disinformation that have spread on WhatsApp for years have often done harm. In 2013, a video clip circulated in Muzaffarnagar, a city in northern India that allegedly shows two young men being executed without trial, sparking riots between Hindu and Muslim communities, resulting in dozens of deaths. a Police investigation found That the video was more than two years old and was not filmed in India. In Brazil, fake news The podium flooded It was used in favor of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who won the country’s 2018 presidential election.

But the company didn’t take the misinformation issue seriously until 2018, when rumors about child-kidnappers engulfing the platform led to A series of extrajudicial executions Across India. In a statement released at the time, the Indian Ministry of Information Technology warned WhatsApp Legal Action said the company would “be treated as agitators” if it didn’t solve the problem, sending WhatsApp into crisis mode. She has transported top executives from the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California to New Delhi to meet government officials and journalists, and has conducted high-profile awareness campaigns about disinformation.

Sam Panthaki / Getty Images

Protest in July 2018 against extrajudicial executions in India. Dozens of people were executed across the country that year thanks to WhatsApp rumors, which left Indian authorities and WhatsApp scrambling for a solution.

It has also included new features in the app to directly counter misinformation for the first time, such as Classification of forwarded messages And the restriction The number of people or groups to which a portion of the content could be forwarded to slow down the viral content. In August last year, it was I also started Allow people in a few countries to upload message text to Google to check if the prompt is fake. The feature is not available for WhatsApp users in India yet.

Since then, the company The work has been done On a tool that allows users to search for images they received in the application with one click in 2019, a step that will help people verify facts more easily. But nearly two years later, there is no sign of the feature, although a transcript is available in more than a dozen countries that do not yet include India.

“We’re still working on the search tool feature,” a WhatsApp spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.

WhatsApp said the company wanted to provide more clarity about its new privacy policy. “We would like to emphasize that this update does not expand our ability to share data with Facebook. Our goal is to provide transparency and new options for dealing with companies so that they can serve their customers and grow,” the spokesperson said. WhatsApp will always protect personal messages with end-to-end encryption so that WhatsApp or Facebook cannot see them. We are working to address misinformation and remain ready to answer any questions. “

This week, the company placed a status message, which is the WhatsApp equivalent of a Facebook story, at the top of the People Status section. The case wiretapping revealed a series of messages from the company that belie the rumors.

Screenshots from BuzzFeed News

The first said “WhatsApp does not share your contacts with Facebook”. Two more status updates made it clear that WhatsApp cannot see people’s locations and cannot read or listen to encrypted personal conversations. The last message read: “We are committed to your privacy.”

On Thursday, employees posed multiple questions to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg before a weekly question and answer, according to internal communications seen by BuzzFeed News. Some wanted to see if the growing move to Signal and Telegram was affecting WhatsApp usage and growth metrics. Others wanted the CEO to determine whether or not Facebook is using any metadata from WhatsApp to serve ads.

“Do you think we could have done a better job of clearly explaining [the new privacy policy] For users? ”

Another commented: “The public is outraged by WhatsApp PrivPolicy changes.” “Distrust of Facebook is very high so we have to be more careful about this.”

Zuckerberg responded by saying that he did not believe the company handled the changes well.

He said, “The short answer is no, I don’t think we dealt with this as we should.” “And I think the team has already been involved in everything – and they have a number of lessons to make sure we are doing a better job going forward, not just on WhatsApp TOS. But as you know, we have other TOS updates for different apps and services. And we have to make sure we are doing better at In this way, we reduce the amount – and the amount – of misinformation that is generated and the amount of confusion that is created. “

Ryan Mack contributed to the reporting.

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