The core of the problem is its use of end-to-end encryption, a security measure that garbles users’ messages while they travel from one phone to another so that no one other than the sender and the recipient can read them. Encryption is a crucial privacy protection, but it also prevents WhatsApp from going as far as many of its peers to moderate misinformation. The app has taken some steps to limit the spread of viral messages, but some researchers and fact-checkers argue it should do more, while privacy purists worry the solutions will compromise users’ private conversations…
In April 2020, WhatsApp began slowing the spread of “highly forwarded messages,” the smartphone equivalent of 1990s chain emails. If a message has already been forwarded five times, you can only forward it to one person or group at a time. WhatsApp claims that simple design tweak cut the spread of viral messages by 70%, and fact-checkers have cautiously cheered the change. But considering that all messages are encrypted, it’s impossible to know how much of an impact the cut had on misinformation, as opposed to more benign content like activist organizing or memes. Researchers who joined and monitored several hundred WhatsApp groups in Brazil, India, and Indonesia found that limiting message forwarding slows down viral misinformation, but doesn’t necessarily limit how far the messages eventually spread….
This isn’t just a semantic argument, says EFF strategy director Danny O’Brien. Even the smallest erosion of encryption protections gives Facebook a toehold to begin scanning messages in a way that could later be abused, and protecting the sanctity of encryption is worth giving up a potential tool for curbing misinformation. “This is a consequence of a secure internet,” O’Brien says. “Dealing with the consequences of that is going to be a much more positive step than dealing with the consequences of an internet where no one is secure and no one is private….”
No matter what WhatsApp does, it will have to contend with dueling constituencies: the privacy hawks who see the app’s encryption as its most important feature, and the fact-checkers who are desperate for more tools to curb the spread of misinformation on a platform that counts a quarter of the globe among its users.
Whatever Facebook decides will have widespread consequences in a world witnessing the simultaneous rise of fatal lies and techno-authoritarianism.
Read more of this story at Slashdot.