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Understanding Harms

The use of private messaging platforms can expose users to a range of harms that impact trustworthiness.

In this section we cover six harms that were most frequently mentioned by the users we spoke to in Nigeria, Colombia and the United States. For each one, we explore the different ways that these impact the user experience as well as the platform design gaps that can amplify these harms.

Vulnerability to adverse

mental health impacts

The negative psychological impacts that arise from using private messaging platforms.

Vulnerability to manipulation (misleading content, misinformation) or exposure to offensive content
The use of private messaging platforms to knowingly or unknowingly spread content that can be perceived as being hateful, offensive and/or misleading. 
Vulnerability to hacking, scamming, blackmailing, extortion, fraud, and harassment
The direct misuse of private messaging platforms by adults as distinct from those affecting youth and children.
Vulnerability to encryption and data breaches via modified and third party supporting platforms
The different ways that private messaging platforms security, privacy and encryption features are bypassed by users through the use of modified and third party supporting private messaging platform apps.
Vulnerability to targeted harassment for youth and young adults
The use of private messaging platforms to exploit the vulnerability of youth and minors.
Vulnerability to digital surveillance and monitoring
The potential use of private messaging platforms by governments and corporations to survey or monitor users. 

Design Gaps That Spread These Harms

Sitting across all six harms we found a total of seven product design gaps that seem to have the biggest impact on platform trustworthiness for the users we spoke with.

A. Easy access to personal identifying data

Personal information on most private messaging platforms is easily accessible, while the use of phone numbers as account identifiers makes it easy to connect with any user.

C. Generalized and hidden privacy and security controls for contacts and groups

Security and privacy controls are presented as generic settings applied equally to all contacts and groups while also remaining hidden behind multiple steps within complex menu structures.

E. Limited user support and lack of adequate reporting mechanisms

From tech literacy and customer support to emergency and reporting tools, there are limited to no user support mechanisms available. Those that exist are not perceived as being useful or adequately functional.

G. Lack of transparency regarding access to user data

There are gaps around who can access, use, and potentially misuse user data (e.g., how and if companies and governments can access user data). And private messaging platforms don’t communicate transparently and in an user-friendly way how they manage and protect users data. 

B. Limited verification and consent focused features for contacts and groups

There is a lack of mechanisms for verifying contacts or groups, while permissions for new contacts and groups are either not set by default or are non-existent.

D. Infringement by modified (MOD) and third party supporting apps ecosystem

There are multiple modified (MOD) and third party supporting private messaging platform apps that offer users additional features that they can use in combination with or in replacement of their private messaging platform app.

F. Limited content
management tools

There are very few features that help users manage and organize the content they receive. This can cause some users, mainly those who participate in large groups and/or receive large amounts of content, to feel overwhelmed.

Not all design gaps are relevant to all harms. But our research indicates that each of these design gaps has an adverse effect on more than one harm leading to a cumulative effect that raised deep concerns among every user we spoke with.

The chart below presents a summary view of the specific design gaps their negative impacts across the primary harms that emerged from our discussions across the three countries.

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