“It works like a pyramid,” said Nemer, whose research focuses on Bolsonarism, disinformation and the “human infrastructure” behind political misinformation spread through social media and WhatsApp. “At the top, you have people producing misinformation. In the middle, you have Bolsonaro supporters who work like a swarm of bees to spread misinformation on stage. Bottom line, average Brazilians are in a group where this misinformation ends up, and they spread it to other groups they belong to.
Communities, Nemer fears, make it easier for people at the top to manage these disinformation networks.
Experts like Neymar are right to be concerned. When WhatsApp announced in April that it would not launch the feature until later in the year, Bolsonaro was reportedly angry that the company was not launching it right away. In July, federal prosecutors in Brazil reportedly asked the company to delay its launch until after the country’s October elections to avoid 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 was waiting until after the election to launch communities, a WhatsApp spokesperson replied, “No.”
After this story was published, a WhatsApp spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the feature is not yet available in Brazil and won’t be available until January.
Over the years, WhatsApp has placed guardrails on its platform to slow the spread of misinformation, such as clearly labeling forwarded messages, a major source of misinformation, and restricting forwarded messages to only five groups at a time. Now, the company is putting an additional limit: people can 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 within community groups,” a WhatsApp spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
Still, Neymar remains skeptical. “The idea — having a bunch of groups — is great,” he said. “But what’s the point of forwarding limits when you can now post something to a single announcement group and reach more people than you could with a single forward to a single group?”