“It works like a pyramid,” said Nemer, whose research focuses on bolsonarism, misinformation and social media, and the “human infrastructure” behind political misinformation spread via WhatsApp. “At the top are people who produce misinformation. In the middle are Bolsonaro supporters working like a swarm of bees to spread misinformation on the platform. In the end, it is average Brazilians who are in groups where this misinformation ends up, and they in turn spread it to other groups to which they belong.”
Communities, Nemer fears, will make it easy for those at the top to manage these misinformation networks.
Experts like Nemer are rightly concerned. When WhatsApp announced in April that it would not launch the feature until later in the year, Bolsonaro was reportedly upset that the company didn’t roll it out right away. In July, Brazilian prosecutors reportedly asked the company to postpone the launch until after the country’s October elections to avoid spreading fake news and misinformation.
WhatsApp finally rolled out the feature four days after Bolsonaro’s defeat. When BuzzFeed News asked if Meta waited after the election to launch Communities, a WhatsApp spokesperson simply replied, “No.”
After this story broke, a WhatsApp spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the feature isn’t yet available in Brazil and won’t be available until January.
Over the years, WhatsApp has put guard rails in place to slow the spread of misinformation on its platform, e.g. B. Uniquely identifying forwarded messages, a major source of misinformation, and limiting the forwarding of messages to only five groups at a time. Now the company is introducing an additional restriction: people can only forward messages forwarded to them to one group at a time, instead of five.
“We believe this will greatly reduce the spread of potentially harmful misinformation in community groups,” a WhatsApp spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
Nemer is still skeptical. “The idea — having a group of groups — is great,” he said. “But what’s the point of forwarding restrictions when you can now post to a single announcement group and still reach many more people than if you sent a single forward to a single group?”