How two of the world’s biggest chat apps tackle fake news
WhatsApp limits message forwarding, while WeChat bans some content entirely
Eating breakfast frequently is dangerous. Orange peel can unlock smartphones. Australia announced the end of cancer.
These were all actual story headlines circulated on China’s biggest chat app last year. None of them sound particularly convincing, but they became some of the most widely spread hoaxes on WeChat in 2018.
Around the world, social media firms are grappling with ways to tackle the spread of misinformation. If you’re a WhatsApp user for instance, you may notice that starting from this week onwards, you can only forward a message up to five times -- a new measure adopted by app owner Facebook to curb fake news, which plagued users in India and Brazil (among many other places).
Placing limits on message sharing isn’t new. But the way it’s done differs from platform to platform. On WhatsApp, where messages are encrypted end-to-end, it’s difficult for moderators to read what’s actually being shared and deal with them directly.
The measure isn’t limited to fighting fake news. It also targets a long list of other content deemed inappropriate by WeChat, including obscene materials and solicitation for religious donations.
There’s even one category called “content that induces sharing”. If you’re not sure what that means, remember those hilariously ominous chain emails that say you will die unless you forward the message to five people? Yup, that's banned.
WeChat says it wants to provide users with a better social experience. But sometimes, its actions also lead to plenty of questions.
Whatever the means, both WeChat and Western social platforms are fighting a problem with plenty of similarities.
Both reports offer possible reasons on why that’s the case. US researchers suggest older people may lack digital media literacy. Others could be going through memory decline.
Meanwhile authors of the WeChat report think older people in China tend to be less educated and have a more negative state of mind, possibly leading them to fall for scaremongering hoaxes.
Case in point: One fake story widely circulated by older people on WeChat had the title “Another dead! Friends who love durians beware. Instantly lethal. Too scary!!!”
To effectively target this age group, Tencent suggests that government departments -- who are viewed as more authoritative -- should publish debunking articles, written in simple language that appeal to older readers.