“Do not accept WhatsApp’s new policy,” one of the messages on the platform went viral. “Once you are done, your WhatsApp account will be connected to your Facebook account and Zuckerberg can see all your chats.”
“In a few months, WhatsApp will launch a new version that will show you ads based on your chat,” said another. “Don’t accept the new policy!”
Thousands of similar messages went viral on WhatsApp, which happened in the days following the Facebook-owned instant messaging app. Millions of people raced to download WhatsApp options like Signal and Telegram when felt by celebrities like Tesla CEO Elon Musk and whistleblower Edward Snowden.
There was just one problem: From the 4,000-word policy, it was clear that the new changes only apply when people use WhatsApp to chat with businesses and not in private conversations with friends and family.
No, the new words will not let Facebook read your WhatsApp chat, the company asked anyone. Top officials posted Long threads Interviewed large publications on Twitter and in the company’s largest market in India. WhatsApp spent millions of pages buying front-page ads in big newspapers and released graphics on its website with rumors of a large “Share to WhatsApp” button, allowing some truth to be misinformed through its platform Was expected The company encouraged Facebook employees to share these infographics, according to a post from its internal message board workplace.
A WhatsApp spokesperson told Buzzfeed News, “So because of misinformation and confusion has arisen, we are working to provide accurate information about how WhatsApp protects people’s personal interactions.” “We are using our status feature to communicate directly with people in WhatsApp, as well as posting accurate information in dozens of languages on social media and our website. Of course we have also provided these resources for those Who work in our company. So they can directly answer the questions of friends and family, if they want. “
None of it worked.
Over the years, rumors and hoaxes spreading through WhatsApp have caused misinformation crises in some of the world’s most populous countries such as Brazil and India where the app is the primary way where most people talk to each other. Now, this crisis has reached the company.
“Trust in platforms [at a] Rock bottom, ”Claire Wardley, cofounder and director of First Draft, a nonprofit organization that researches misinformation, told Buzzfeed News. “People have been worrying for years about the power of technology companies, especially awareness of how much data they are collecting on us. So when privacy policies are changed, people are concerned about what this means. “
Wardley said that people are concerned that WhatsApp will associate their behavior with data from their Facebook account.
“Facebook and WhatsApp have a great deal of trust,” said Prateek Sinha, founder of the fact-checking platform Alt News in India. “Once you do this, any kind of misinformation attributed to you is easily consumed.”
What did not help both Sinha and Wardley is the lack of understanding among regular people about how technology and privacy work. “Confusion is where misinformation thrives,” Wardley said, “so people considered policy changes, leaps to conclusions, and inadvertently considered many people a rumor.”
These methods of misinformation that have been flourishing on WhatsApp for years have often caused damage. In 2013, a video went viral in the northern Indian city of Muzaffarnagar, allegedly showing riots between Hindu and Muslim communities in which two young people were loners, killing dozens of people. A police investigation found that the video was over two years old and was not even shot in India. In Brazil, fake news flooded the stage and was used to favor far-flung candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who won the country’s 2018 presidential election.
But the company did not seriously address its misinformation problem until 2018, when rumors about child hijackers flowing through the platform led to a series of violent lynchings across India. In a statement released at the time, India’s IT ministry warned WhatsApp of legal action and said that if the company did not resolve the problem, WhatsApp would be sent into crisis mode. It flew top officials from the company’s Menlo Park, California, New Delhi headquarters to hold meetings with government officials and journalists and conduct high-profile awareness campaigns about misinformation.
It first created new features in the app to directly counter misinformation, such as labeling forwarded messages and limiting the number of people or groups to slow down viral content. In August last year, it began allowing people in some countries to upload the text of a message to Google to verify if a forward was fake. This feature is not yet available for WhatsApp users in India.
Since then, the company has been working on a device that will let users search images found in the app with one tap in 2019, a move that will help people easily fact-check. But almost two years later, there is no indication of the feature, although a text version is available in more than a dozen countries that do not yet include India.
“We are still working on the search tool feature,” a WhatsApp spokesperson told Buzzfeed News.
This week, the company placed a status message, WhatsApp, at the top of the status section of people equivalent to Facebook Story. Tapping on the status led to a series of messages debating rumors from the company.
“WhatsApp does not share its contacts with Facebook,” the first one said. Two more status updates clarified that WhatsApp cannot see people’s location and cannot read or listen to encrypted personal conversations. “We are committed to your privacy,” the last message said.
On Thursday, employees asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg a number of questions for the weekly Q&A, according to internal communications seen by Buzzfeed News. Some wanted to know whether the growing use of signals and telegrams was affecting the usage and development matrix of WhatsApp. Others wanted the CEO to know whether Facebook had used any metadata from WhatsApp to serve ads.
Another person commented, “Changes have been made to public @ WhatsApp private WhatsApp.” “The distortion in FB is so high that we should be more careful about it.”
Ryan Mack contributed reporting.