Governments and medical officials are trying hard to provide the public with accurate and timely information about the novel coronavirus. But those efforts are being undermined by the spread of medical misinformation and fake cures on one of the world’s most popular messaging platforms.
WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook (FB), is coming under severe inspection over how it handles misinformation as the coronavirus pandemic rampages across the globe, infecting more than 200,000 people. The platform is being used to spread messages that often contain a mixture of accurate and misleading claims that have been proved false by medical experts. The problem is now so pressing, that world leaders are urging people to stop sharing unverified information using the app.
“I am urging everyone to please stop sharing unverified info on WhatsApp groups,” Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said Monday on Twitter. “These messages are scaring and confusing people and causing real damage. Please get your info from official, trusted sources.”
The misinformation often arrives on smartphones in messages that have been forwarded by a friend or relative, and includes information supposedly from a prominent doctor or a friend of a friend who works in government. Many of the messages mix sound advice, such as how to wash your hands properly, with misinformation.
One false claim that is circulating: drinking warm water every 15 minutes will neutralize the coronavirus. Because WhatsApp messages are encrypted in a way that allows them to be seen only by the sender and recipient, public health officials and watchdog groups are struggling to track the spread of coronavirus misinformation. WhatsApp says it has taken steps to curb misinformation, it is donating to fact checking groups and users can forward messages to special accounts that can verify whether the information is reliable.
In recent days, CNN Business has seen multiple versions of a message with information supposedly from medical professionals concerning four young people infected with coronavirus who had been taking anti inflammatory drugs. In one version, written in English, the young people are hospitalized in Cork, Ireland. In another, written in Hebrew, they are in Toulouse, France. Medical officials in both cities have dismissed the story of the four young people as fake.
One popular, but incorrect theme is that “hot fluids neutralize the virus, so avoid drinking ice water,” or that drinking water every 15 to 20 minutes will flush the virus to your stomach where it will be killed by acid. An image spread on WhatsApp and other platforms shows an illustration of a human head and throat. The accompanying message, claims that drinking a lot of water and gargling with salt or vinegar will eliminate the virus. “Spread this information because you could save someone,” it says.
Medical experts and the World Health Organization say that while staying hydrated is important, drinking hot or cold water, or gargling, does not prevent the coronavirus infection.
While similar messages are being shared via text and on other social media, their proliferation on WhatsApp and the difficulty in stopping them makes the service an of particular interest as compared to sister platforms Facebook and Instagram, which have taken more robust and direct efforts to combat coronavirus misinformation. (All three platforms are owned by Facebook.)
How to stop the spread
WhatsApp, which compares itself to traditional SMS text services instead of social media platforms, encrypts conversations, meaning they only live on users’ phones. Though encryption is seen as a plus for security, WhatsApp is blind to what’s being said in messages and that makes it difficult to police or moderate content. On Facebook, third party fact checkers hunt down misinformation, and when they mark something as false, users are shown a message that directs them to a correcting or clarifying post before they are permitted to share the misinformation.
WhatsApp has made efforts to assist health officials in getting accurate information to the public. On Wednesday, the company announced it had donated $1 million to the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), launched a coronavirus information page and said it would help organizations like the WHO and UNICEF provide messaging hotlines for people around the world. Health ministries in countries such as Israel, Singapore, South Africa and Indonesia are already providing updates directly on WhatsApp, through automated accounts. Ultimately, experts say some of the best ways to counter misinformation are public education, teaching people about the coronavirus and how to be smart consumers of information.