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Policy report

Countering disinformation and protecting democratic communication on encrypted messaging applications

Misinformation Communications regulation Data surveillance Electronic surveillance Social media Digital communications Encryption Metadata Sector regulation

Encrypted messaging applications (EMAs) that rely on end-to-end encryption (E2EE), like Signal, Telegram, and WhatsApp, offer a level of intimacy and security that have made them remarkably popular among activists and others who want to communicate without fear of government surveillance. These qualities also make them a useful vector for disinformation: they offer a means of spreading untraceable claims to users via trusted contacts in a secure environment.

Although EMAs typically end-to-end encrypt the content of private messages, they often do not encrypt the metadata of those messages. Interventions based on that metadata show particular promise. Metadata-based forwarding limits on WhatsApp, for instance, appear to have slowed the proliferation of disinformation in India and elsewhere. Third-party evaluations of such approaches are needed to develop and guide best practices for use on other platforms, particularly given criticism of, and broader worry surrounding, WhatsApp’s use of said metadata.

This policy brief argues that successfully countering disinformation on EMAs does not require undermining this stronger form of encryption.

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