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By Donna Lu A newspaper advert from WhatsApp intended to counter fake informationPRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images Limits on the number of times a WhatsApp message can be forwarded to other people slow the spread of fake news, but the restrictions don’t seem to be able curtail the most shareable content. More than 60 billion messages are sent on WhatsApp daily, and in recent years false rumours have spread at alarming speed. These have included government conspiracies, anti-vaccination misinformation and panicked rumours about child abductors that have led to fatal lynchings in India and Mexico. Fabrício Benevenuto at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil and colleagues looked at the spread of information in thousands of public groups in Brazil, India and Indonesia. Advertisement They joined public WhatsApp groups dedicated to political discussions and tracked how 784,000 unique images were shared by users in the 60 days before and 15 days after the recent general elections in each of the three countries. These public groups are key arenas for propagating misinformation, says Benevenuto. The team found that 80 percent of the images stopped being shared after two days, but some continued cropping up more than two months after their first appearance. In January, WhatsApp reduced the limit for forwarding content to five users or groups at a time. The feature had been trialled in India last year, in the wake of violence fuelled by rumours spread via the messaging service. While the team didn’t have access to private communications, they ran simulations based on their data from public groups to test the effect of forwarding limits on the spread of content. Twitterbots: the good, the bad and the ugly: text about person Mike Cook at New Scientist Live They found that the five-forward limit slowed the spread of content by one order of magnitude. For example, if a piece of content would ordinarily take five days to reach an entire network, the limit would slow the spread to 50 days. This would give fact checkers far more time to verify the truth of a piece of content, says Benevenuto. But this delay depended on the virality of the content – how likely users are to share an image after seeing it. For highly viral content, the limits weren’t effective in preventing it from quickly reaching a large portion of the network. According to WhatsApp, the five-forward limit has reduced the total number of forwarded messages on the platform by 25 per cent. “Nine in 10 messages on WhatsApp are sent between two people and the average group has fewer than 10 people,” a spokesperson told New Scientist. “Looking only at the types of groups within the study misses the most common ways that people use WhatsApp.” Reference: arxiv.org/abs/1909.08740 More on these topics: social media