Amidst Deepen COVID-19 crisis, WhatsApp conspiracies go viral

On Sunday morning, the Dutch city of Utrecht experienced a viral outbreak that infected over 60 people in less than an hour. However, the infection happened on WhatsApp.

Chain of sharing misinformation

Messages guiding people to consume hot soup to get rid of coronavirus, or to conduct a test by holding their breath for 15 seconds, were shared in mass numbers between friends and relatives in a matter of minutes, contravene official medical advice. Ivonne Hoek, 63, explained she got the message from a friend shortly after 11 a.m., who said they have received it from a neighbor who works in a hospital. She got alarmed and promptly forwarded it to her two children. At 11:36, her son, Tim, sent it to his entire Frisbee team of 65 people.

“I probably wouldn’t have paid any attention to this if I’d seen it from a stranger on Facebook. But I trust my mum very much,” 35-year-old Tim van Caubergh said.

“I shared it because it came from a trusted source … that is how these things happen.”

The COVID-19 crisis, which has killed almost 9,000 people worldwide and exposed economic misery for millions more, has been lead by what the World Health Organization (WHO) has called an “infodemic” of misinformation.

WhatsApp teamed up with WHO

On Wednesday, Twitter adopted measures like its social media competitor Facebook in banning users from sharing misleading information about the coronavirus, consisting of denials of expert guidance and promotion of fake treatments. 

However, the rapid sharing of one such message in the Netherlands exhibits the challenges encountered by private chat platforms, like text messages or Facebook-owned WhatsApp, where the content is trickier to police and most of the time believed to be coming from a trusted source when shared by friends and family.

“I think there’s a sense of security and community that exists in these group chats that gives anything shared there a mark of authenticity,” said Anna-Sophie Harling, head of Europe for the U.S.-based misinformation monitoring center NewsGuard.

“People can quickly send and resend images, text and voice notes, and it all happens in private, making it difficult to counteract those claims.”

Previously, WhatsApp has restrained the number of people to whom users can forward messages after viral rumors on its platform instigated a wave of mass beatings and deaths in India in 2018. WhatsApp, which has more than 2 billion users worldwide, stated on Wednesday it had teamed up with the WHO and other U.N. agencies to roll out a service for sharing official health guidance regarding coronavirus.

WhatsApp chief Will Cathcart claimed the platform had also made a donation of $1 million to fact-checking organizations “to support their life-saving work to debunk rumors.”

Lisa-Maria Neudert, a researcher at Oxford University’s Project on Computational Propaganda, explained such misinformation could affect the efforts to curb the spread of the virus.

“From my own experience, yes I do think this has an impact,” she said. “I know educated people that are heeding inaccurate medical advice they have seen shared on social media and in private messages.”

Hello, I’m Anna Yeo. If you like my news coverage, please drop a good word in my inbox. I’m journalist by profession and have been part of many major reporting across the globe. I like to write crisp and factual news. I have completed my masters degree in journalism. Feel free to contact me at [email protected]

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