Don’t Shoot the Messenger: why coronavirus misinformation is spreading like wildfire on WhatsApp
April 21, 2020
On the 2nd February 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared an infodemic; two months later the spread of coronavirus misinformation continues to threaten public safety.
Over a quarter of the world's population use WhatsApp, the messaging service owned by Facebook, and over 65 million messages are sent daily. It’s how we share memes, check in on family, keep in contact with overseas friends and create endless group chats. The intimate, locked nature of a group chat makes it the ideal environment for misinformation to thrive and spread, almost as deadly as coronavirus itself.
Originally, a message could be forwarded to a staggering 250 chats on one foul click. In 2019, WhatsApp reduced this number to five. Despite these measures, in the wake of a global pandemic, rumours and misinformation spread by forwarded messages, are rife across the app.
When Anna Fountain woke up to a voice note sent to a group chat of thirteen by a close friend, she listened without hesitation. What she heard left her feeling uneasy, scared and sick for the rest of the day.
The voice note was narrated by a middle-aged female NHS worker claiming to have just left a coronavirus meeting and urging people to stay at home. It begins “this is no word of exaggeration this has come from Public Health England to all ambulance services in the UK”, before describing plans for ice rinks to be stacked with coronavirus victims' bodies, hundreds of young children and babies dying from the virus, and emergency services instructed to tell people to deal with severe medical emergencies at home.
“It made me so stressed out the day I listened”, says Fountain, “it made me have such a bad day, I was like it’s just forwarded it’s not real, but it still majorly stressed me to get the inside scoop from someone who supposedly works for the NHS”. The origin of the voice note is unknown and a double forwarding arrow indicated the message had been forwarded more than five times.
The reasons for spreading misinformation and fear-mongering is hard to comprehend; is it malicious? Or is it terrified front line workers subconsciously catastrophizing what they hear so others will share their fear? Either way, it is increasingly dangerous.
The University of Sheffield reported a significant spike in people reporting significant levels of depression and anxiety after the UK lockdown was announced in March. Heightened emotions leave individuals vulnerable to misinformation.
Giulia, an Italian student who wishes to keep her surname anonymous, received a voice note from her Father early in March. The voice note was allegedly from an intensive-care doctor working in Niguarda, a well-known hospital in North Milan. Again, the underlying message was a sensible one; stay at home, but it was edged with fear-mongering and allegations of media cover-ups. “The message was forwarded by my father, a highly educated 60-something-year-old, so definitely not a person you would expect to receive fake news from”, says Giulia.
She uploaded it to her Instagram story urging people to stay home and stop spreading misinformation. A short while later she suddenly realised she had become part of the problem, “I felt so stupid realising it was me sharing misinformation by posting an audio note randomly forwarded via WhatsApp with no fact-check”, she says.
The message came at a time when Giulia felt the Italian government was failing to protect its citizens, “the major of Milan and the head of Partito Democratico, Nicola Zingaretti, were encouraging us to keep on with our lives, with the hashtag #MILANONONSIFERMA (Milano won't stop)”, she explains.
At home Giulia could see groups of people ignoring social distancing instructions; all she wanted was to convince people to protect themselves by staying inside. Though the voice note was unverified and made her uneasy, it was the only resource she had available.
Earlier this month, WhatsApp announced further measures to reduce the spread of misinformation by making it impossible to forward messages to more than one person at a time. This could make people question the source and validity of forwarded messages, but it seems the spread of misinformation has less to do with the technology and more to do poor communication from governments.
The only way to truly fight misinformation is with the spread of accessible and factual information. This is something governments across the world have repeatedly failed to provide. A hesitance to reveal shortcomings and a reluctance to be held accountable for changing responses and management of the virus has left citizens scared and vulnerable to misinformation.