What makes content go viral and how Whatsapp is handling that virality

There are six traits of sticky, viral messages. Social media platforms like Whatsapp are at the fore of disseminating this information. Now, they are faced with managing same.

What makes content go viral and how Whatsapp is handling that virality

In June, two lovers got into a playful disagreement over the origin of a Whatsapp message.

The lady – Ms. Opeyemi had forwarded a message soliciting support for one of her high-school friend's new song. Worded as a personal message, it read:

Kindly listen to and share my new song: [inserts soundcloud link]

The guy – Mr. Olutayo asked: "Please, where is this coming from? and was it directed at me?"...

He knew his woman does not sing, so, he was pretty sure that it was not from her.

However the question: "where is this coming from?" kept lingering.

Whatsapp's July 10 update set out to answer that question for the likes of Ms. Opeyemi, in unmistakable terms. According to a blog post from the company,  "WhatsApp will indicate which messages you receive have been forwarded to you".

How forwarded messages render in Whatsapp

In essence, labeling forwarded messages solve the origination question.

How about managing the virality of misinformation or fake news?

“A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on.” – Mark Twain

Before we look at how Whatsapp is handling it, I think it's pertinent to ask why messages even go viral in the place?

Why do messages go Viral?

A classic viral message - news of a "great" job opportunity

On March 27, 2017 a software engineer – Ibanga Enoobong, who had received this message no less than 5 times decided to analyse the cause of its virality. In his own words:

"For me 3 friends sent it to me on WhatsApp, it was shared in 2 Slack Communities I belong, showed up on my Twitter and Facebook timeline." – Enoobong

True to his words, my dad had unknowingly sent me a similar message TWICE on two different dates via Whatsapp. It went so viral that it kept coming back almost every 6 months.

Typically, users like myself and Moroluwa Dada only forward relatable messages that are generic and too long to type. Another reason is that you are not the originator and you do not know so much about it. But you believe someone could benefit from the content therein.

As humans, we get some fulfilment when we are able to contribute to the success of others. Therefore, a lot of users tend to forward news-worthy content in good faith to create more awareness about a topic.

I asked my 50-year old mother the kind of messages she forwards and her response was unsurprising:

"Prayers, alerts/warning, BREAKING news, health tips..."

This unmetered news-sharing is fueled by the two-way producer ecosystem the internet and social media has created. Formerly, the dissemination of news was done solely by trained journalists and professional media outlets who utilise(d) print (newspaper), radio and terrestial channels. Now, any social media user can be a news source and others carriers. They broadcast content to their contacts, followers and friends at will without the burden of validating the news. Once it looks true or logical, click goes the message.

Enoobong's analysis applied the six traits outlined in the book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath as a framework for understanding why that tweet went viral. The traits are simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions and stories.

To summarise, messages that are too-goo-to-be-true (unexpected), quantitative (concrete), credible, narrative and appealing to the emotions of readers tend to go viral.

Applying that same logic to the rumour of child abduction in India, we easily see why it went viral. Children are a protected specie; pictures and stories about them tend to elicit so much emotion from the older generation.  

Days ago, a rumour had spread on Whatsapp and Facebook "that child kidnappers were operating in the area" such that when people saw a black SUV approaching, they "said that the car might be used to kidnap children.". Meanwhile, the occupants of the car – Nath and Das were only there for a "normal visit". On arrival, the rural dwellers mobbed them because they  "thought that this car was being used to lift children.". (P.S - the quotes in this paragraph were modified to make the explanation make sense.)

While 27 people connected with the spread of the rumour have been arrested, it doesn't bring back the lives of Nilotpal Das and Abhijit Das.

![Apps on a smartphone](,w_3627/v1532037036/rami-al-zayat-170349-unsplash_u7e310.jpg)

More of what Whatsapp is doing

Whatsapp, in another blog post, reiterated that the service was built as a "private messaging app".

And while they have taken steps to address the killings in India, they will now be limiting the number of recipients per forwarded message to just twenty (20). While in India it will be only five (5) chats at once.

Also, they have removed the quick forward button which formerly showed in front of media content (pictures and videos).

The implication

For Olutayo, he will never have to ask whether a Whatsapp message originated from his lover, Opeyemi because it would be glaring.

While for Opeyemi, she will have to carefully select the 20 Whatsapp contacts to forward a message to, such that it has the greatest impact.

And for Christian - the content originator, he is limited in the reach of his new song.

To reach more people on Whatsapp, creatives like Christian will have to send different messages to different sets of 20 people.

Get weekly insights on tech startups and VC in Africa