New WhatsApp feature lets users fact-check viral messages

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What just happened? With over 2 billion users, WhatsApp is the most popular messaging application in the world. But, like owner Facebook, it’s a platform where misinformation spreads quickly. To try and combat this problem, the company has rolled out a new feature that should make fact-checking these claims quicker and easier.

WhatsApp users will see a magnifying glass icon next to messages that have been forwarded more than five times. Tapping on it searches for the message’s contents online, which should help people discover whether it’s real or misinformation/conspiracy theories.

The example WhatsApp uses is of a message that claims “drinking fresh boiled garlic water will cure COVID-19.” Hitting the icon requests permission to search for this on the web, which brings up several fact-checking websites that show the claim to be false.

Anyone can perform a quick web search themselves to check the validity of messages, of course, but the feature makes the process quicker and easier, and could encourage more people to confirm the facts instead of assuming what they read is true.

WhatsApp emphasizes that it never reads the contents of a message; the feature works by allowing users to upload the message via their browsers. Called ‘search the web,’ aptly, it started rolling out yesterday in the US, Brazil, Italy, Ireland, Mexico, Spain, and the UK for those on the latest versions of WhatsApp for Android, iOS, and WhatsApp Web.

Back in April, WhatsApp introduced a new policy in which users who received a message that had been forwarded more than five times would only be able to forward it to one chat (contact) at a time. The effort obviously worked: viral messages dropped by 70 percent in only three weeks.

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