It was just a few minutes before midnight and Charles, 25, was finally about to finish what had been a very long day. But just before he turned in for the night, he did that one last bedtime phone check.
Having furtively scrolled through his Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram feeds for all of five minutes, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. It was the usual — rhetorics, wit, jokes, and health advice amid the ongoing pandemic.
Then, he did a sweep of his WhatsApp Stories and found something odd. A middle-aged distant aunt had posted a WhatsApp story for what seemed like the first time ever. And this was the content:
“Everyone in Nigeria is advised to stay indoors for the next 24 hours as the government is taking drastic steps to contain the coronavirus. As from midnight, helicopters carrying special disinfectants will be flying across the country and sanitizing the atmosphere to kill the virus. You are advised to stay indoors as unchecked exposure to atmospheric air can cause severe health complications.”
Charles further scrolled through his WhatsApp Stories and found 15 different contacts that had shared the same clearly bogus information, all within a few minutes of one another. Exhausted, he put his phone down and dozed off.
There are now over 1,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Africa, spread across 40+ countries. A little over a month ago, there was not even a single case on the continent.
As African governments and medical officials scramble to contain the spread of the pandemic that has already ravaged Europe, Asia, and the Americas, there is something else that is spreading even faster and is quite deadly too.
That thing is misinformation, mostly shared via the most-used app in Africa: WhatsApp.
Besides travel restrictions by African governments and social distancing measures that have shut public gatherings, schools, and religious centres, the importance of accurate and timely information in these times cannot be overemphasized.
Indeed, Nigeria reported two cases of Chloroquine poisoning after it was rumoured to be the cure. In all fairness, though, that rumour may have been fuelled by the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, who did say that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had approved Chloroquine for treating COVID-19, shortly before the FDA pretty much refuted President Trump’s claims.
Trump says the FDA has approved the drug Chloroquine for use in Covid-19 https://t.co/yeJqjAPIOE
— Bloomberg (@business) March 19, 2020
The FDA says it has not approved Chloroquine for Covid-19 use, contradicting the president’s statement https://t.co/AtzMxn6Vgp
— Bloomberg (@business) March 19, 2020
Similarly, the Ebola outbreak of 2014 had many people gulping down gallons of salted water and taking baths with the same after it was rumoured to be effective in preventing the ailment.
Away from all that, misinformation via WhatsApp, like the anecdote in the earlier part of this piece, is giving governments one more headache in the fight against COVID-19, especially in Africa where WhatsApp and even its modified versions are wildly popular, even more popular than Facebook itself.
There are 200 million+ social media users in Africa and WhatsApp is the most preferred platform.
WhatsApp is used by 73 percent of internet users in Kenya, 53 percent of internet users in Nigeria, and 49 percent of internet users in South Africa. In 2018, WhatsApp accounted for almost half of all mobile data used in Zimbabwe.
WhatsApp’s ease of use makes it the most-preferred social messaging platform for all demographics. Its “Group” feature is also a plus.
WhatsApp Groups help many people communicate and keep in touch, but it is also perhaps the commonest funnel for misinformation. Hoax messages and unverified broadcasts often find their way from the Groups to contacts and from those contacts to other contacts.
It is for this reason that WhatsApp put a limit on the number of times a message can be forwarded in 2019, in an effort to curb misinformation and curtail incendiary messages. This was after viral hoax messages in India contributed to more than a dozen lynchings in 2018.
During a time of crisis, like this very moment when the world is battling a pandemic that has already claimed over 8,000 lives and infected more than 200,000 people worldwide, bad information — like the one spread by Charles’ aunt — has found a breeding ground on WhatsApp.
The infodemic that is spreading arrives on smartphones in messages that have been forwarded by a friend or relative and includes information purportedly 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. There are also false claims that garlic is a proven treatment.
Beyond WhatsApp, these hoax messages also find their way to other social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, but there they are ultimately debunked and buried. And that’s because those kinds of broadcasts can be seen by a ‘very public audience’ and addressed appropriately.
Facebook and Instagram (both owned by Facebook Inc. together with WhatsApp) have taken more robust and direct efforts to combat coronavirus misinformation, using third-party moderators to fact-check and hunt down misinformation. Unlike WhatsApp.
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 itself does not monitor the flow of messages on the platform.
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.
WhatsApp has made efforts to assist health officials in getting accurate information to the public.
On Wednesday, March 18, the company announced it had donated USD 1 Mn to the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), launched a coronavirus information page and said it would help organizations like the World Health Organisation (WHO) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to provide messaging hotlines for people around the world.
Health ministries in countries such as Israel, Singapore, Indonesia, and South Africa are already providing updates directly on WhatsApp, through automated accounts. (In a separate yet not-unrelated development, South Africa has since declared COVID-19 misinformation a criminal offense.)
Back to the matter — In other “WhatsApp-against-COVID-19-misinformation” news, the WHO launched a messaging service just yesterday (March 21) with partners, WhatsApp and Facebook, to keep people safe from coronavirus.
This easy-to-use messaging service has the potential to reach 2 billion people and enables the WHO to get information directly into the hands of the people that need it.
The service can be accessed through a link that opens a conversation on WhatsApp. Users can simply type “hi” to activate the conversation, prompting a menu of options that can help answer their questions about COVID-19.
The WHO-WhatsApp messaging service will provide the latest news and information on coronavirus including details on symptoms and how people can protect themselves and others. It also provides the latest situation reports and numbers in real-time to help government decision-makers protect the health of their populations.
Will this help? Maybe. Carl Woog, a WhatsApp spokesperson did tell CNN recently that limiting forwards to five chats and groups to 256 members has decreased forwards on WhatsApp by 25 percent.
Featured Image Courtesy: Time