Mozilla urges WhatsApp to combat misinformation ahead of global elections

In 2024 – about half the world’s population – will go to the polls in 64 countries, including major democracies such as the United States and India. Social media companies like it , and , have pledged to preserve the integrity of these elections, at least in terms of the discourse and factual claims made on their platforms. Missing from the conversation is WhatsApp, a closed messaging app that now rivals public social media platforms in both reach and reach. This lack worries non-profit Mozilla researchers.

“Almost 90% of the security hacks that Meta promised in the run-up to this election targeted Facebook and Instagram,” Odanga Madung, Mozilla’s senior researcher on elections and platform integrity, told Engadget. “Why hasn’t Meta publicly committed to a public road map on how to protect elections. [WhatsApp]?”

WhatsApp, which Meta (then Facebook) bought for $19 billion in 2014, over the past decade Most of the world outside of the US can communicate. In 2020, WhatsApp announced that it had more than two billion users worldwide—a scale that dwarfs every other social or messaging app except Facebook itself.

Despite its scale, Meta’s focus has largely been on Facebook when it comes to election-related security measures. Mozilla’s Facebook has made 95 election-related policy announcements since 2016, marking the year the social network came under scrutiny for help. and fuel extreme political sentiments. WhatsApp announced a total of 14. In comparison, Google and YouTube announced 35 and 27 each, while X and TikTok announced 34 and 21, respectively. “From what we can see from their public announcements, Meta’s election efforts heavily favor Facebook,” Madung said in the report.

Mozilla At Meta, making major changes to how WhatsApp works on polling days and in the months before and after elections across the country. These include adding disinformation labels to viral content (“Highly forwarded: please check” instead of the current “multiple forwarded”), restricting broadcast and Community features that allow people to send messages to hundreds of people at once, and encouraging people to “pause”. and think before you suggest anything.” More than 16,000 people have signed Mozilla’s pledge asking WhatsApp to slow down the spread of political disinformation, a company spokesperson told Engadget.

First, WhatsApp The friction to the service comes after dozens of people were killed in India, the company’s biggest market caused misinformation spread on the platform. This includes limiting the number of people and groups users can forward content to, and distinguishing forwarded messages with “forwarded” labels. The addition of the “directed” label was a measure to prevent misinformation – the idea was that people would be more skeptical of the content being transmitted.

“Someone using WhatsApp for the first time in Kenya, Nigeria or India will not think about the meaning of the label ‘directed’ in the context of disinformation,” Madung said. “In fact, it can have the opposite effect – something has been highly promoted, so it must be credible. For many communities, social proof is an important factor in ensuring something is credible.”

The idea of ​​asking people to pause and think comes from a feature of Twitter the app prompted people to read an article before retweeting it if they hadn’t opened it the first time. Twitter It led to a 40% increase in people opening articles before retweeting them

And asking WhatsApp to temporarily disable its broadcast and Community features comes out of concerns about the potential for messages being broadcast or otherwise blasted to thousands of people at once. “They’re trying to make this the next big social media platform,” Madung said. “But without considering the proliferation of security features.”

A WhatsApp spokesperson told Engadget that “WhatsApp is one of the only technology companies that intentionally limits sharing by implementing forwarding limits and labeling messages that have been forwarded multiple times.” “We’ve created new tools to enable users to search for accurate information while protecting them from unwanted contact. .”

Mozilla’s requirements are out around the company’s platforms and elections in Brazil, India and Liberia. The former are WhatsApp’s two largest markets, while most of Liberia’s population lives in rural areas where internet penetration is low, making traditional online fact-checking nearly impossible. In all three countries, Mozilla found political parties heavily using WhatsApp’s broadcast feature to “micro-target” voters with propaganda and, in some cases, hate speech.

WhatsApp’s encrypted nature also makes it impossible for researchers to track what’s going on in the platform’s ecosystem — a limitation that doesn’t stop some of them from trying. In 2022, two Rutgers professors Kiran Garimella and Simon Chandrachud visited the offices of political parties in India and managed to convince officials to add them to the 500 WhatsApp groups they managed. It was based on the information they collected “What Goes Around on Guerrilla WhatsApp in India?” they wrote called While the findings were surprising — Garimella and Chandrachud found that misinformation and hate speech did not actually make up the majority of content in these groups — the authors clarified that their sample size was small and that they were deliberately excluded from these groups. groups where hate speech and political disinformation flow freely.

“Encryption is a red herring to prevent accountability on the platform,” Madung said. “The problems in the context of elections are not only related to the content. The point is that a small group of people can easily have a significant impact on groups of people. These programs have eliminated the friction related to the transmission of information through society.”

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