“It works like a pyramid,” said Nemer, whose research focuses on bolsonarism, disinformation, and social media, as well as the “human infrastructure” behind political disinformation that spreads via WhatsApp. “At the top, you have people producing misinformation. In the middle you have Bolsonaro supporters working like a swarm of bees to spread misinformation on the platform. Basically, it is average Brazilians who are part of the groups where this disinformation ends up, and they in turn spread it to other groups in which they are.
Communities, Nemer fears, will make it easy for people at the top to manage these disinformation networks.
Experts like Nemer are right to worry. When WhatsApp announced in April that it would not be launching the feature until later this year, Bolsonaro was would have angry that the company did not launch it immediately. In July, federal prosecutors in Brazil would have asked the company to delay its launch until after the October elections in the country to avoid the spread of fake news and misinformation.
WhatsApp finally rolled out the feature four days after Bolsonaro’s defeat. When BuzzFeed News asked if Meta waited until after the election to launch Communities, a WhatsApp spokesperson simply said, “No.”
After this story was published, a WhatsApp spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the feature was not yet available in Brazil and wouldn’t be available until January.
Over the years, WhatsApp has put up guards in place to slow the spread of misinformation on its platform, such as clearly labeling forwarded messages, a major source of misinformation, and restricting the forwarding of messages to only five groups at a time. Now the company is imposing an additional limitation: Users can only forward messages forwarded to them to one group at a time, instead of five.
“We believe this will significantly reduce the spread of potentially harmful misinformation in community groups,” a WhatsApp spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
Still, Nemer is skeptical. “The idea – having a group of groups – is brilliant,” he said. “But what good are forwarding limits when you can now post something to a single ad group and still reach a lot more people than if you had to send a single forward to a single ad group?”