WhatsApp group admins felt a sudden surge of power on 1 September when an update gave them the ability to delete messages for everyone in a group. The idea was for admins to keep the peace in group chats – mainly ones that are open to the public. Emma Sadleir Berkowitz, a South African social media law expert, is warning South African WhatsApp admins about a potential legal concern involving the update.
Watch your back
According to Berkowitz, the update is far more important than initially believed. For years, debates have argued whether a group admin should be held responsible for content posted on a WhatsApp group. It was deemed unfair to blame an admin for content that was entirely out of their control.
Now, with the ability to delete messages, admins could be held responsible for anything illegal posted to a group. “In South African law, if you have the ability to delete something, and you choose not to, then you become legally responsible for the content.” Whether it’s hate speech, racism, or some other illegal message, admins are tasked with taking it down as soon as possible.
It opens the door as to how to prove whether or not a specific admin saw an illegal message. Yes, there’s a built-in feature that can determine if someone “read” a message, but come on. How many times have you ever come back to a group with over 200 messages waiting for you? Most people skim to the most recent messages, disregarding the other 190+.

NB new WhatsApp update. Pls share! https://t.co/6WUasHkyDM
— Emma Sadleir Berkowitz (@EmmaSadleir) September 5, 2022

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Or what if an admin misses the cutoff to delete messages? Recently, WhatsApp changed how long a user has before a message becomes ‘undeletable’. Before, users only had a few hours. This has since been extended to around two days and twelve hours. This doesn’t resolve the issue of an admin being indisposed and returning late and unable to delete an illegal message.
These changes could discourage some from becoming WhatsApp group admins, should they be held responsible for what group users post. Or perhaps not, since the majority of South Africans won’t know the update affects them. It could lead to some unfortunate legal cases for unaware group admins being left holding the bag.
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