WhatsApp has gone on a blocking spree, purging millions of its two billion users for breaking a little-known rule on the app intended to stop the spread of hoaxes. Over two million accounts have been blocked from WhatsApp in just one month for violating the rule. The company said it had targeted users who were found to be sending a “high and abnormal rate of messages”.
What counts as too many messages? Luckily, you’d have to work pretty hard to fall foul of the rules. The company said over 95% of the bans were “due to the unauthorized use of automated or bulk messaging”, not regular texting.
Almost all the banned accounts are in India, WhatsApp’s biggest market with over 400 million users. Bans were triggered when users forwarded messages too many times, blasting past the app’s strict new limit on how many times a message can be forwarded to other people or groups.
The limit, which was announced in April 2020, is in place to combat spam and the spread of viral rumours, photos and hoaxes. This is a huge problem in India, where many people rely on the app for news.
Messages containing “fake news” have been blamed for outbreaks of violence and lynchings across the country.
The app has mass-banned users before. WhatsApp said it uses AI technology to block around eight million accounts around the world, every month.
It uses information like profile and group photos and descriptions as well as “behavioural signals” from accounts to decide whom to ban.
Reports submitted by other users were also used to help catch the rogue accounts.
WhatsApp said in a statement: “We are particularly focused on prevention because we believe it is much better to stop harmful activity from happening in the first place than to detect it after harm has occurred. The abuse detection operates at three stages of an account’s lifestyle: at registration; during messaging; and in response to negative feedback, which we receive in the form of user reports and blocks.”
It added that it had not read any of the spam messages sent on the app because of its end-to-end encryption.
Earlier this year, WhatsApp sued the Indian government to try and stop a new law that would have forced the app to hand over information on users accused of criminal activity. The company said this violated users’ right to privacy, adding: “Requiring messaging apps to ‘trace’ chats is the equivalent of asking us to keep a fingerprint of every single message sent on WhatsApp, which would break end-to-end encryption and fundamentally undermines people’s right to privacy.” The lawsuit is still underway.