WhatsApp to Limit Message Forwarding After Rumor-Led Violence in India

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WhatsApp’s restrictions followed a new policy at Facebook, which said Wednesday it will begin removing misinformation that could spark violence.

WhatsApp’s restrictions followed a new policy at Facebook, which said Wednesday it will begin removing misinformation that could spark violence.


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Alberto Pezzali/Zuma Press

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NEW DELHI—

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WhatsApp messaging service is making it harder for users world-wide to forward content after the spread of rumors on the app led to mob violence and the killing of more than 20 people in India.

False messages about roaming child-kidnapping gangs spread through WhatsApp—one of the most widely used apps in India with over 200 million monthly active users—have triggered a spate of lynching as panicked groups attack strangers they find suspicious, Indian authorities have said.

WhatsApp’s announcement Thursday followed a new policy at Facebook, which on Wednesday said it will begin removing misinformation that could spark violence, starting in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, which have also struggled with violence on the back of false reports spread on social media.

The Indian government earlier this month asked WhatsApp to take immediate action to stop the misuse of its platform, saying rumors circulated on the messaging service had led to deadly attacks.

The Menlo Park, Calif.-based company said in a blog post that it is putting restrictions on the number of groups to which a message can be forwarded.

“Today, we’re launching a test to limit forwarding that will apply to everyone using WhatsApp,” the WhatsApp blog said. “In India—where people forward more messages, photos, and videos than any other country in the world—we’ll also test a lower limit of 5 chats at once.”

WhatsApp’s blog post didn’t provide further information about what the limit on forwarding would be outside India. A spokesman for WhatsApp didn’t respond to queries emailed Friday afternoon.

The company also said it was removing what it called the “quick forward”  button in India, which comes up on the side of media content on the app. This means users will have to go through more steps if they want to forward information.

In India, WhatsApp has published advertisements in major newspapers with tips for its users to help them decide “if something sent to you on WhatsApp is true.” It also started labeling forwarded messages on its platform to help users determine if their “friend or relative wrote the message they sent or if it originally came from someone else,” the company wrote in a separate blog post last week.

The steps taken so far by WhatsApp haven’t been able to assuage the Indian government, which said in a statement late Thursday that “much more needs to be done.”

“When rumours and fake news get propagated by mischief mongers, the medium used for such propagation cannot evade responsibility and accountability,” the statement from India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said. “If they remain mute spectators they are liable to be treated as abettors and thereafter face consequent legal action,” it added.

The ministry said it had asked WhatsApp to “come out with more effective solutions that can bring in accountability and facilitate enforcement of law.”

Write to Krishna Pokharel at krishna.pokharel@wsj.com

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