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WhatsApp channels: "Important updates from individuals and companies"?

Photo: Meta

The WhatsApp messenger is getting a broadcast function – the ability for individual users to broadcast to a theoretically unlimited audience of followers. According to the Meta subsidiary, followers, in turn, should have "a simple, reliable and secure way" to "receive important updates from individuals and companies directly in WhatsApp" with these so-called WhatsApp channels.

To this end, WhatsApp has "developed a searchable directory" in which you can choose channels for your own "hobbies, favorite teams, news from local authorities and much more". Alternatively, the administrators of the channels can distribute invitation links.

Initially, the channels will only be accessible in Colombia and Singapore, with other countries to follow in the coming months. They can then be found under a new tab called "News" and thus separate from the individual and group chats.

WhatsApp could become a fake news slingshot

The new feature could lead to WhatsApp becoming not only a platform for private communication, but also for the dissemination of political content. This has already become visible on Telegram, where a comparable channel function enjoys great popularity among extremists and conspiracy theorists, for example, and Attila Hildmann at times reached more than a hundred thousand followers via the function. The function plays a central role in the fact that Telegram was able to develop into a platform on which misinformation or inflammatory content is spread on a large scale. On Telegram, channels can have unlimited followers.

At the request of SPIEGEL, WhatsApp explained that a limit on the channel size was only planned in the introductory phase. After the test phase, however, this limit should be dropped: "Our goal is that administrators of channels can then reach an unlimited audience," WhatsApp said.

Change of strategy at WhatsApp?

Until now, WhatsApp had been reluctant to be a platform where a larger audience could be reached in one fell swoop. WhatsApp groups can have a maximum of 1024 members. In addition, WhatsApp stipulated years ago that messages can only be forwarded to a maximum of five contacts or groups at the same time. This may also have been a reaction to the spread of rumours and misinformation via WhatsApp, which had led to violent attacks and even deaths in India, for example.

For law enforcement, the new feature could also become a problem because posts in the new channels automatically disappear after 30 days. This leaves only limited time to find criminal content.

No end-to-end encryption for channels

At WhatsApp, "privacy should be a top priority". The telephone number and profile photo of the respective channel operators are not visible to the followers. And neither admins nor other followers would be able to see a follower's number. "Who you follow, you decide for yourself, and this information is private," is how WhatsApp describes it in a blog post. Admins would also get an option to block screenshots and redirects from their channel, as well as who can follow their channel and whether or not they should be found in the directory.

The disadvantage of this construction is that this also makes it more difficult to prosecute potentially criminal content.

On the other hand, a privacy feature that WhatsApp has been used to since 2016 will be missing from the channels: end-to-end encryption, which is activated by default. Telegram users should already be familiar with this, too, because posts in channels cannot be protected with this particularly secure form of encryption. According to WhatsApp, it is considering offering "this as an option in the future".

As a justification, WhatsApp said in response to a SPIEGEL inquiry that the channels should reach as large an audience as possible. End-to-end encrypted channels are more likely to "make sense for a limited target group," with WhatsApp citing non-profit or health-related organizations as an example.