Early last month, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook will pivot towards focusing encrypted and private messaging. The change in company direction reflects the growth of messaging platforms globally. Last year, the Facebook-owned Whatsapp, surpassed the Facebook platform in terms of active monthly users. It is also a nod to public and institutional concerns about data privacy. However, supporting encrypted private messaging is not a solution to disinformation spreading across social platforms, although Facebook may see it a medium to absolve themselves of some of the responsibility. If they can not monitor the content being shared they may consider that they can not be accountable for it.
However, the circulation of misinformation and disinformation on closed and encrypted networks poses a serious challenge to social cohesion and democracy globally. Whatsapp, for instance, has been being used to stir mob violence in India, and spread falsehood and conspiracy theories in the lead up to the national election in Brazil. Whatsapp is a closed social network which makes it difficult to track the spread of misinformation across. Yet, the formation of large chat groups facilitates the rapid spread of information.
Social media researchers Ben Decker, Whitney Philips and Claire Wardle consider Whatsapp and other closed network platforms as a critical element in a broader ecosystem of information migration. Their research indicates that misinformation typically takes root on anonymous social platforms like Reddit or 4Chan and is then shared in closed networks like Whatsapp and Line before reaching online conspiracy communities. These communities then share the misinformation as public posts on social networks like Facebook and Twitter before reaching the professional mass media industry. Claire Wardle describes this process as a trumpet of amplification.
The role of encrypted social networks deserves particular attention in economies in Asia where they are used as a source of news. According to The Reuters Institute’s Digital News Reports, 54% of people surveyed in Malaysia, 42% in Singapore, and 38% in Hong Kong reported accessing news through Whatsapp. But it is not just Whatsapp that deserves attention. Asia has a very diverse social media ecosystem compared with Europe and the Americas. While Western economies are dominated by Whatsapp and FB Messenger, East and Southeast Asian countries have 10 different messaging apps making up the top two in each country. According to the Reuters Institute report, some of these platforms are also a major source of news. In South Korea, 39% of survey respondents receive their news via the messenger app KakaoTalk and in Chinese Taipei, 53% access news via the LINE messenger platform. Unfortunately, the Reuters Institute’s report does not cover all the markets in Asia, but the report’s evidence suggests we should also give attention to Viber in Myanmar and the Philippines, LINE in Thailand, and Blackberry Messenger in Indonesia due to their powerful market position and their capacity for being networks where false and misleading information is circulated.