Channels: Whatsapp makes inroads into the social networking model (and responsibilities)

7 minutes
Channels: Whatsapp makes inroads into the social networking model (and responsibilities)
"A synthwave megaphone spreading chat notifications", played by Adobe Firefly.

Last week Whatsapp introduced a new feature that brings it a little closer to social networking products, a field from which it had previously tried to distance itself. It is Channels, a tool of the application in which users will be able to publish photos, text messages, videos, stickers and polls one-way, different from the services of communities and diffusion lists.

The tool is configured under the one-to-many logic, as channel administrators will be able to address many followers, but they will not be able to interact with them, except for the emoji reactions that have been available in Whatsapp conversations for some time. According to the company, its goal is to "develop the most private transmission service possible", so users will act anonymously and will not have access to the phone number of the administrator, who in turn will not be able to know the identity of their followers. 

This new functionality, which is being tested in Colombia and Singapore, emulates services provided by other platforms such as Telegram and Instagram, where they have the same name. Unlike private conversations, which are end-to-end encrypted, these spaces will be public and the contents will not be encrypted.

This new service puts on Whatsapp the burden of monitoring the content that circulates through the channels to prevent the dissemination of problematic publications, such as hate speech or misinformation, which through this platform can easily reach hundreds of thousands of people. Until now, the messaging platform based its security and trust on reports from users regarding certain private messages or on signals -such as the abnormal resending of a message- to identify problematic material. 

Opening the door to new services implies attending to the different fronts required by content moderation, not only in the task of supervising the platform, but also in offering ways for users to appeal in the event that they consider they have been unfairly sanctioned. 

The rules of the channels, similar to the policies of other social media, prohibit publications that include illegal content, threats, coordination for criminal activities or violent or sexually explicit images, among others. According to the company, this content may be detected from reports, manual or automated reviews, which will result in sanctions such as the removal of content or suspension of users.

Similar services have come under fire in recent times, as they have been used as avenues of coordination for violent events. In 2022, a number of Telegram channels were found to be used to organize disinformation campaigns for the Muslim population in India, while earlier this year the same platform was identified as a key means of calling for the protest that led to the invasion of Congress and other public buildings in Brasilia by protesters alleging fraud in the last presidential election in that country. 

Whatsapp, in turn, has already had its own problems as a means of disseminating false information and questioning electoral integrity, as has occurred in the United States, especially with the Latino population in this country, among which the application has a higher degree of penetration.

Meta, Whatsapp's parent company, has long experience in dealing with such phenomena - and the scandals and pressures of not dealing with them - and has put in place ambitious moderation projects such as the Oversight Board, which could be a foundation in case the channel service becomes a hotbed of problematic content.

The design of the channels could mitigate risks, such as the fact that these spaces will not be recommended by an algorithm but that users will be the ones who actively search for and subscribe to one, or that the content circulating in them will be deployed by a timeline and not by the criteria of a system.

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