Preventing Fake News – Why WhatsApp Throttled Virality

In the never-ending quest to help the public avoid “fake news,” WhatsApp is now limiting how many times a person forward messages. You can now share messages five times instead of the previous 20 limit.

The platform wants to avoid rumors that spread on the app which lead to violence like last year’s killings in India that seemed to be the result of messages that spread via the social media app. 

They’re trying to get ahead of the trend. We’ll see if the limitations have any affect on users that spread fake stories, doctored audio, photoshopped images, and manipulated videos. 

Interestingly, WhatsApp is essentially putting a governor on a feature that’s central to their platform’s attractiveness. They’re taking the social out of social media.

The question is whether or not it will work . . . and what’s next. Will email platforms limit the number of forwards? Will election hackers and scandal mongers adjust their tactics? What’s to prevent a click-farm outfit from creating multiple WhatsApp accounts and going about their business? 

WhatsApp isn’t really addressing the problem at its source. The real problem is about content creators who design new stories that are false or otherwise suspect. WhatsApp is merely limiting the distribution channel. If the news itself is compelling, it’s going to spread anyway (fake, not-fake, nuanced or otherwise). In the digital era, there are countless ways around the distribution hurdles set up by social media companies and messaging apps. 

All of this, of course, is about Word of Mouth (WOM), the age-old concept that describes how information spreads via social groups. 


Old School WOM and Your “Friends” As Sales People


“Arouse in the other person an eager want.”

– Dale Carnegie

In the world without internet, there were these things called gossip and “word of mouth.” This still goes on, of course. You’ll see word of mouth abbreviated as WOM these days. The interesting thing about WOM and gossip is that it’s limited in a non-internet world.

Your grandma might go to a butcher to pick up some steaks then run into a friend or two around town and tell them how great her butcher is. That kind of recommendation might allow word about the butcher to spread into a WOM universe capped by the number of people in the community or the surrounding areas. The same would apply to news about some known character in the community, gossip and bullying about someone, news of an upcoming event and so on.

Nowadays, however, information and news about products, people, events and more goes viral online and spreads way beyond the initial communities or friend groups where they originate.

It really started with email. Email did and still does allow you to copy people on the email and forward messages to groups of contacts. Those get forwarded on, and so on. You’ll see this with popular joke and meme emails that go around. The same ones that make the rounds on email (or were famously viral in days past) may even show up as memes on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest and Twitter.

 The point here is that WOM can be launched to a whole new level with digital virality. This is way different than a few people in a small community talking about the newspaper around a coffee shop table. Exponential broadcasting effects can now happen among distinct groups of people with specific interests.

By the way, advertisers know that WOM is the most compelling form of recommendation. Back in the day, one mom recommending Tide for getting out tough stains (actually an army of moms across many communities) was far more valuable than a spot on the evening news. It’s why reviews and stars are so important online. People want to hear from like-minded shoppers (and in many cases from their friends – think about clothing and rock concerts) about what they should buy. This applies to everything from foods and supplements to books and movies.

Some “friends” are even selling to each other. Experts sell classes and courses to each other. Hobbyist moms sell Etsy jewelry to their friends. Physical fitness buffs sell each other supplements, workout tools and paleo diet books.

In the chapters ahead, when we’re talking about news, “fake news” and pap, we’ll want to keep all these concepts in mind. First, let’s get into some news basics to understand the old ways news was divided and how those lines are blurring in the digital age.

Exercise: Find two examples of WOM experiences you’ve seen online. Pick one that’s a large meme or trend. Pick one that’s very local and specific to your friend group. Take a screenshot or forward them to me via email. Include a short description of why you think this particular example can be considered word of mouth. Where do you think it started? Who started it? Is it driven by a person you know or do you think a company started it? We’ll go over these in class.   



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