“Don’t accept WhatsApp’s new policy,” said one of the posts that went viral on the platform. “Once you do, your WhatsApp account will be linked to your Facebook account and Zuckerberg will be able to see all of your chats.”
“In a few months, WhatsApp will launch a new version that will show you ads based on your chats,” said another. “Do not accept the new policy!”
Thousands of similar messages went viral on WhatsApp, the instant messaging app owned by Facebook, in the days that followed. Encouraged by celebrities like Tesla CEO Elon Musk and whistleblower Edward Snowden, millions of people precipitate to download WhatsApp alternatives like Signal and Telegram.
There was just one problem: From the 4,000-word policy, it was clear that the new changes only applied if people used WhatsApp to chat with businesses, not private chats with friends and family.
No, the new terms would not allow Facebook to read your WhatsApp chats, the company explained to anyone who asked. Top posted executives long threads to Twitter and gave interviews to major publications in India, the company’s largest market. WhatsApp has spent millions buying front page ads in major newspapers and published graphics Debunking rumors on its website with a big “Share on WhatsApp” button, in the hopes of injecting some truth into the flood of disinformation running through its platform. The company also encouraged Facebook employees to share these infographics, according to posts on its internal Workplace bulletin board.
“There has been a lot of misinformation and confusion, so we are working to provide accurate information on how WhatsApp protects people’s personal conversations,” a WhatsApp spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “We use our Status feature to communicate directly with people in WhatsApp, as well as to post accurate information on social media and our website in dozens of languages. Of course, we’ve made these resources available to people as well. who work in our company. so that they can answer questions directly to their friends and family if they wish. “
None of this worked.
For years, rumors and hoaxes spreading through WhatsApp have fueled a disinformation crisis in some of the most populous countries in the world like Brazil and India, where the app is the primary way most people talk to each other. Now this crisis has hit the company itself.
“Trust in platforms is [at a] deep in the sky, ”Claire Wardle, co-founder and director of First Draft, a nonprofit that researches disinformation, told BuzzFeed News. “For years, people have become increasingly concerned about the power of technology companies, especially the awareness of the amount of data they collect about us. So when privacy policies are changed, people rightly worry about what that means. “
Wardle said people were concerned about WhatsApp connecting their behavior on the app with data from their Facebook accounts.
“Facebook and WhatsApp have a huge trust deficit,” said Pratik Sinha, founder of Alt News, a fact-checking platform in India. “Once you have that, any kind of misinformation attributed to you is easily consumed.”
What doesn’t help, Sinha and Wardle added, is the lack of understanding among ordinary people of how technology and privacy work. “It is in confusion that disinformation thrives,” Wardle said, “so people saw the policy changes, jumped to conclusions and, unsurprisingly, a lot of people believed the rumor.”
These patterns of disinformation that have thrived on WhatsApp for years have often done damage. In 2013, a video went viral in Muzaffarnagar, a town in northern India that allegedly showed two young men being lynched, prompting riots between the Hindu and Muslim communities in which dozens of people died. . A police investigation found that the video was over two years old and hadn’t even been shot in India. In Brazil, the fake news flooded the platform and was used to favor far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who won the 2018 presidential election in the country.
But the company didn’t seriously address its misinformation issue until 2018, when rumors of child kidnappers sweeping the platform led to a series of violent lynchings across India. In a statement released at the time, the Indian Ministry of Informatics warned WhatsApp took legal action and said the company would be “treated like an accomplice” if it didn’t fix the issue, sending WhatsApp into crisis mode. He has transported senior executives from the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California, to New Delhi to meet with government officials and journalists, and has conducted high-level awareness campaigns around disinformation.
It has also integrated new features into the app to directly counter disinformation for the first time, such as labeling of forwarded messages and restrict the number of people or groups that a piece of content could be transferred to slow viral content. In August of last year he also started allow people in a handful of countries to upload the text of a post to Google to check if a forward was bogus. The feature is not yet available for WhatsApp users in India.
Since then, the company worked on a tool that would allow users to search for images they received in the app with one click in 2019, an initiative that would help people more easily verify the facts. But almost two years later, there are no signs of the feature, although a text version is available in more than a dozen countries that so far do not include India.
“We’re still working on the functionality of the search tool,” a WhatsApp spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
This week, the company put a status message, the WhatsApp equivalent of a Facebook story, at the top of the People Status section. Tapping on the status revealed a series of messages from the company debunking the rumors.
“WhatsApp does not share your contacts with Facebook,” said the former. 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 respecting your privacy,” read the last message.
On Thursday, employees posed several questions to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg ahead of a weekly question-and-answer session, according to internal communications seen by BuzzFeed News. Some wanted to know if the growing shift to Signal and Telegram was affecting WhatsApp usage and growth metrics. Others wanted the CEO to consider whether or not Facebook was using metadata from WhatsApp to serve ads.
“The public is enraged @ WhatsApp PrivPolicy change,” another person commented. “The distrust of FB is so high that we should be more careful about it.”
Zuckerberg responded by saying he didn’t think the company handled the changes well.
“The short answer is no, I don’t think we handled this as well as we should have,” he said. “And I think the team is already engaged in all that is – and has a number of lessons to ensure that we do a better job in the future, not just on WhatsApp TOS. But you know, we have other TOS updates for different apps and services. And we have to make sure we do better in both of these areas. Thus, we minimize the amount of misinformation that is created – and the amount of – and minimize the amount of confusion that is created. “
Ryan Mac contributed reporting.