Will WhatsApp Communities lead to more misinformation?

Meta-owned messaging platform, WhatsApp, is rolling out a new feature – Communities – to let people bring separate groups under one umbrella, and enable admins to send updates to a community, and / or organize them into small discussion groups. The new tab will be accessible to a select number of groups later this year before being rolled out wide, according to a tweet by WhatsApp’s head Will Cathcart. Interestingly, WhatsApp will not support the ability to search for or discover new Communities. Taking cue from Telegram, WhatsApp is also not allowing the community at large to view a members phone number.

New Features, New Tools

Communities will include new tools, including:

  • Announcement messages that admins – and only admins – can send to everyone, on an announcement group. WhatsApp will initially support community announcements for “several thousands of users”.
  • Control over which groups can be included
  • Admin Delete – Group admins will be able to remove errant or problematic messages from everyone’s chats.
  • File Sharing – We’re increasing file sharing to support files up to 2 gigabytes so people can easily collaborate on projects.
  • Larger Voice Calls – We’ll introduce one-tap voice calling for up to 32 people with all new design for those times when talking live is better than chatting.

From a users perspective, they’ll have the ability to:

  • Decide who can add them to a community
  • Report abuse, block accounts
  • Leave Communities and groups silently leave a group, so everyone in a group is not notified in case people decide the conversation is no longer for them.

How will political parties use Communities?

Communities essentially addresses the ability for an admin to be able to manage multiple groups and communicate with more than 256 people at a time – which is WhatsApp’s limit for participants in a group.

At present, many political parties – especially in India – use WhatsApp groups for spreading political messages, misinformation, disinformation and hate speech. They create hundreds of thousands of groups – and disseminate messages that get shared from group to group, as a waterfall effect.

WhatsApp had addressed this issue by previously restricting messages – which previously could to be sent to 256 groups down the line, to 5 at a time. This would have made things harder for political parties to forward messages, and made the waterfall mode of messaging more cumbersome, but what’s a little more effort for the devout drone?

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The introduction of Communities on WhatsApp allows for much better organization for political parties: there can be better centralized control, and administrators will be able to send messages to thousands of users, who can then forward the messages to other groups, or perhaps other Communities that they may control. Instead of managing many groups on WhatsApp, and sending messages for further distribution to a group at a time, each admin may just need to manage a few communities, and be able to message hundreds of thousands of users in one go.

A caveat here: it’s still not very clear how exactly WhatsApp will roll out the communities feature, and whether there will be certain feature restrictions – for example, will the size of groups within a community be smaller than that of a regular group? Will members be restricted from copying or forwarding admin messages? Will groups within a community need to be created afresh, or can existing groups be added to communities? The answers to these questions, among others, will significantly impact how political parties use WhatsApp communities.

One major change that WhatsApp is making, which will certainly help address virality, is that it is limiting forwarding of messages to only one group at a time, instead of five. In the announcement, the company said that “We believe this will significantly reduce the spread of potentially harmful misinformation in community groups.” They will probably need to do more than this.

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