Convincing your friends and loved ones to stop spreading bullshit online feels like a Sisyphean task—one you probably gave up on years ago, thanks to a particular charged political moment that set us all down the path to social Hell. In these times, I think it’s important to consider the following: “What Would WhatsApp Do?”
You read that right. What would WhatsApp do? I don’t think the popular communication app is the next Miss Manners of the internet, but I love the new rules it’s implementing for annoying chain letters popular, highly forwarded messages. They should be the rules we all live by, period; not just on WhatsApp.
As WhatsApp explains:
“Last year we introduced users to the concept of messages that have been forwarded many times. These messages are labelled with double arrows to indicate they did not originate from a close contact. In effect, these messages are less personal compared to typical messages sent on WhatsApp. We are now introducing a limit so that these messages can only be forwarded to one chat at a time.”
In other words, if a message has already been forwarded five or more times on WhatsApp, you can now only pass it along to one contact at a time. To that, all I can say is, “???? blessed.”
I strongly encourage you to find a way to sneak this rule into the conversations you have with your conspiracy-theory-loving friends and relatives. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, upon receiving some forwarded message, the inbox frequenter you know and love only shared it to one other person? This technique flattens the curve of sharing—not killing off the virus with a cure, unfortunately, but reducing its ability to spread.
I like WhatsApp’s phrase for this process: constraining virality. And while even the company admits that mass-forwards can be useful—sharing cute animal content, organising people around an event, or providing support—I’m confident in saying that 98 per cent of what I receive in my personal inbox that starts with “FW:” is garbage. (If you want to cute-animal me up, just drop the photo or link into a tweet.)
That, and WhatsApp’s implementation doesn’t prevent people from sending mass-messages when the need arises. It only helps curtail people from forwarding along that which is likely unimportant. A person can always take a forwarded message, rephrase it, and send that along instead as a new chain message—while not ideal for spam prevention, at least said person is contributing some original thought as part of the process. Or if they’re truly desperate, they can take the original forwarded message they received and forward it along to people or groups one by one.
Technicalities aside, will you be successful in your quest to silence the email-forwarders in your life? Hard to say. People love to forward junk, hoaxes, incorrect analyses of science, crap-masquerading-as-science, and political misinformation. But if you can convince even one of your contacts to not forward messages to their entire contact list, you’ll be doing yourself—and the world—an incalculable amount of good. It never hurts to try. You can even start by forwarding this article, if you want.