A new WhatsApp “Communities” feature makes organizing groups a breeze. Critics say it will make it easier to spread misinformation.

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“It works like a pyramid,” said Nemer, whose research focuses on bolsonarism, misinformation and social media, and the “human infrastructure” behind political disinformation spreading through WhatsApp. “At the top you have people who produce misinformation. In the middle you have Bolsonaro supporters who work like a swarm of bees to spread misinformation on the platform. At the bottom, it’s the average Brazilians who are in groups where this misinformation ends up, and they in turn spread it to other groups they’re in.”

Communities, Nemer fears, will make it easy for the people at the top to manage these disinformation networks.

Experts like Nemer are rightly concerned. When WhatsApp announced in April that it wouldn’t launch the feature until later in the year, Bolsonaro was reportedly upset that the company didn’t launch it immediately. In July, Brazil’s federal prosecutors reportedly asked the company to delay its launch until after the country’s October elections to prevent the spread of fake news and misinformation.

WhatsApp finally rolled out the feature four days after Bolsonaro’s defeat. When BuzzFeed News asked if Meta had been waiting to launch communities after the election, a WhatsApp spokesperson simply replied, “No.”

Over the years, WhatsApp has put in place guardrails to slow the spread of misinformation on its platform, such as clearly labeling forwarded messages, a major source of misinformation, and limiting message forwarding to only five groups at a time. Now the company adds an additional restriction: People can only forward messages forwarded to them to only one group at a time, instead of five.

“We believe this will meaningfully reduce the spread of potentially harmful misinformation in community groups,” a WhatsApp spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.

Still, Taker is skeptical. “The idea — having a group of groups — is great,” he said. “But what’s the point of forwarding limits if you can now post to a single announcement group and still reach many more people than if you sent a single message to a single group?”



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