“We do not accept the new WhatsApp policy,” said one of the viral messages on the platform. “Once done, your WhatsApp account will be linked to your Facebook account and Zuckerberg can see all your chats.”
“In a few months, WhatsApp will launch a new version that will show you ads based on your chats,” said another. “Don’t accept the new policy!”
Thousands of similar messages went viral on WhatsApp, Facebook’s instant messaging app, in the days that followed. Invited by celebrities such as Tesla CEO Elon Musk and whistleblower Edward Snowden, millions of people run to download WhatsApp alternatives like Signal and Telegram.
There was only one problem: From the 4,000-word policy, it was clear that the new changes would apply only if people used WhatsApp to chat with businesses, not private conversations with friends and family.
No, the new terms will not let Facebook read your WhatsApp chats, the company explained to anyone who asked. Top place managers long threads to Twitter and gave interviews to large publications in India, the company’s largest market. WhatsApp has spent millions to buy front page advertising in major newspapers and published graphics dispelling rumors on his site with a big “Share to WhatsApp” button, hoping to inject some truth into the flow of disinformation flowing through his platform. The company also encouraged Facebook employees to share these infographics, according to posts in its internal Workplace message.
“There has been a great deal of misinformation and confusion as we work to provide accurate information on how WhatsApp protects people’s personal conversations,” a WhatsApp spokesman told BuzzFeed News. “We use our Status feature to communicate directly with people on WhatsApp, and also post accurate information on social media and on our website in dozens of languages. Of course, we also make these resources available to people who work on WhatsApp. our society can thus answer questions directly to friends and family if they wish ”.
For years, rumors and jokes spread about WhatsApp have been circulating it has fueled a crisis of disinformation in some of the most populous countries in the world like Brazil and India where application is the primary way most people talk to each other. Now, this crisis has hit society itself.
“Confidence in platforms is [at a] rock bottom, ”Claire Wardle, co-founder and director of First Draft, a nonprofit organization that studies disinformation, told BuzzFeed News.“ We’ve had people for years worry more and more about the power of technology companies, especially an awareness of how much data they are collecting about us. So when privacy policies change, people are just worried about what that means. ”
Wardle said people are concerned that WhatsApp connects 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 consumed promptly.”
What doesn’t help, both Sinha and Wardle have added, is the lack of understanding among regular people about how technology and privacy work. “The confusion is where misinformation thrives,” Wardle said, “so people have seen policy change, jumped to conclusions, and unsurprisingly, a lot of people have believed the rumor.”
These patterns of misinformation that have thrived on WhatsApp for years have often led to harm. In 2013, a video went viral in Muzaffarnagar, a city in northern India that allegedly showed two young men being lynched, inciting riots between Hindu and Muslim communities where dozens of people were killed. A police investigation found that the video was more than two years old and was not even shot in India. In Brazil, false news flooded the platform and has been used to favor far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who won the country’s presidential election in 2018.
But the company didn’t take its disinformation problem seriously until 2018, when rumors about child abductors working the platform led to a series of violent lynchings across India. In a statement released at the time, India’s IT ministry warned WhatsApp took legal action and said the company would be “treated as abettors” if it did not solve the problem, sending WhatsApp into crisis mode. He flew top executives from Menlo Park, California, the company’s headquarters in New Delhi to meet with government officials and journalists, and ran high-profile awareness campaigns around disinformation.
It has also integrated new features into the app to directly counter disinformation for the first time, as well labeling of transmitted messages and restricts the number of people or groups a piece of content could be transmitted to slow down viral content. From August last year, it is even started leaving people in a handful of countries to upload the text of a message to Google to check if a forward was false. The feature is also not available for WhatsApp users in India.
Since then, society it worked on a tool that would allow users to search for the images they received in the app with a single tap in 2019, a move that would help people verify facts easier. But almost two years later, there is no sign of the feature, although a text version is available in more than a dozen countries that, so far, do not include India.
“We are still working on the feature of the search tool,” a WhatsApp spokesman told BuzzFeed News.
This week, the company posted a Status message, the WhatsApp equivalent of a Facebook story, at the top of the People Status section. The touch on Status revealed a series of messages from the company spreading the rumors.
“WhatsApp does not share your contacts with Facebook,” said the former. Two more state updates have clarified that WhatsApp cannot see people’s location and cannot read or listen to encrypted personal conversations. “We are committed to your privacy,” the latest message said.
On Thursday, employees had several questions for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg ahead of a weekly Q&A, according to internal communications seen by BuzzFeed News. Some have wanted to know if the growing movement in Signal and Telegram has influenced the use and growth metrics of WhatsApp. Others wanted the CEO to decide whether or not Facebook used metadata from WhatsApp to serve advertising.
“The public is angry @ WhatsApp PrivPolicy is changing,” said another person. “The distrust in FB is so high that we need to be more careful about that.”
Zuckerberg responded by saying he didn’t think society would handle the changes well.
“The short answer is no, I don’t think we handled it as well as we should have,” he said. “And I think the team is already engaged in everything that is – and has a lot of lessons to make sure we do a better job going forward, not just in WhatsApp TOS’s. But you know, we have other TOS updates for different apps and services. And we need to make sure we do better on these two. So, we minimize the amount of misinformation that is created – and the amount of – and we minimize the amount of confusion that is created. “
Ryan Mac contributed the reporting.