WhatsApp today announced another protection for users in an effort to clamp down on the spread of fake news and misinformation. Through a new feature, users can control who has permission to add them to groups. The company says this will “help to limit abuse” and keep people’s phone numbers private. Related to this, the app will also introduce an invite system for those who enable the additional protections, allowing users to vet any incoming group invites before deciding to join.
The privacy setting arrives only a day after the Facebook-owned messaging app launched a fact-checking tipline in India, ahead of elections in the country.
Like other social platforms, WhatsApp has played a role in the spread of fake news. In Brazil, for example, the platform was flooded with falsehoods, conspiracy theories, and other misleading propaganda.
This sort of disinformation doesn’t always arrive through family and friends, but can also come in the form of group chats – in some cases, chats that users were added to against their will.
This is particularly true in one of WhatsApp’s biggest markets, India.
As The WSJ recently reported, India’s political parties often use the app to blast messages to groups organized by caste, income level and religion. The number of hoaxes have skyrocketed as WhatsApp parent Facebook clamped down on fake news. Reports of hoaxes that last year numbered in the dozens per day, having since grown to hundreds per day. And WhatsApp is now removing around 2 million suspicious accounts globally per month, the report said.
Putting users in control of how they’re added to groups could help some, but only if users are inspired to dig into the settings and make the change for themselves.
Ideally, this level of protection should be enabled as the default – not an optional choice.
To enable the new protection, users can go to Settings then tap Account > Privacy > Groups then choose one of the three options regarding who can add you to a group text: “Nobody,” “My Contacts,” or “Everybody.” “Nobody” means you’ll have to approve joining every group to which you’re invited, WhatsApp says, and “My Contacts” means only users you already know can add you to groups.
In the event that you change the setting to either “Nobody” or “My Contacts,” people inviting you to groups will be instead prompted to send a private invite through an individual chat. That way, you still have the option of joining a group even if the person inviting you isn’t one of your regular WhatsApp contacts. However, the invite will expire in 3 days if you don’t accept.
This is only one of several changes to WhatsApp made in recent months focused on reducing the spread of misinformation and fake news. The company last summer began to limit message forwarding, and marked forwarded messages with a label. It was also spotted testing a new spam message warning system.
WhatsApp says the new settings roll out to some users today, and will reach the rest of WhatsApp’s audience in the weeks ahead. The most recent version of the app will be required.