Author: Arshpreet Sandhu
With COVID-19 having impacted the health and the day-to-day lives of people across the world, the importance of informing the population with accurate information is key to making informed decisions and helping protect each other. The potential implications of following misinformation or disinformation, otherwise known as fake news, can result in unsafe consequences. Sources of fake news may stem directly from credible or non-credible news sources. Yet, with smartphones and the internet being accessible to individuals of almost all age and ethnic groups, the spread of misinformation and disinformation has been accelerated by communication between individuals through messaging platforms.
It also is important to understand what is meant by the spread of misinformation or disinformation. For the most part, the major difference between misinformation or disinformation is the intentions of those spreading the false information. Specifically, individuals that are spreading misinformation are spreading inaccurate information unknowingly, whereas in disinformation, the individuals intentionally and deliberately spread information that is not accurate. However, depending on the source, fake news may be defined as the spread of false information whether it is misinformation or disinformation. It may also have a more specific interpretation in which it only involves spreading false information intentionally, therefore disinformation. Nonetheless, fake news manipulates people’s perceptions of real events, shift viewpoints, and influences actions.
The focus of discussion will be on the social-messaging platform WhatsApp. Notably, WhatsApp is owned and operated by the social networking giant Facebook, which has also been under pressure for the spread of fake news on its own platform. Although Facebook has created measures to flag and remove fake news from its site, the issue of fake news on Facebook is particularly different than on WhatsApp due to how the platforms operate. The reason for this is that Facebook is a site that can be considered “open” with individuals able to post ads along with liking and sharing information on accounts that are for the most part accessible to the public. This more readily allows individuals to report all forms of information. Facebook has developed technology that notifies users that what they may be viewing is fake news along with directing users to credible health resources during this pandemic. However, WhatsApp is strictly a messaging app and does not have any advertisements. The problem with the spread of fake news on WhatsApp is that messages are end-to-end encrypted and never stored on the company’s servers. Specifically, end-to-end encryption works by deciphering messages in an unreadable format when they are sent from a sender to a recipient. Therefore, a message is encrypted on the sender’s device, is sent to the recipient in an unreadable format, and is then decoded by the recipient’s device into a readable message. As the name implies, end-to-end encryption only allows the users at the ends of communication to view the messages. As a result, the messages and information spread on WhatsApp are entirely private and there is virtually no way to flag or prevent users from sharing misinformation/fake news other than warning users through the WhatsApp website. This inability of WhatsApp to remove or flag messages that may contain fake news combined with its very large user base of over 2 billion users is contributing to the spread of misinformation and fake news at an accelerated rate. WhatsApp is aware of this problem and the implications that it may have during a pandemic. Currently, it has outlined steps to combat fake news by telling users to: understand when a message is forwarded, check photos and media carefully, and check your biases. In addition, WhatsApp has recently limited the number of times a user can forward a message to five. This may curb the spread of misinformation and fake news, however, messages can still be forwarded to groups. WhatsApp groups can have up to 256 users, and despite the forwarding limit of five, messages can still reach up to 1,300 users.
The major reason that WhatsApp is becoming a larger focus is due to its capabilities of creating public panic through the spread of information. Notably, Nigeria has been particularly affected by the spread of misinformation and fake news in the past with Ebola and is now facing a similar situation with COVID-19. After Nigeria confirmed its first case of COVID-19 in late February 2020, WhatsApp users in the country began to forward unverified messages that local flights, hotels, and schools have been contaminated. As a result, this created mistrust between the public and the government, troubled businesses, and spread fear. The issue of public panic and mistrust of authorities as a result of fake news spread on WhatsApp has become an increasingly large concern in the messaging platform’s biggest market: India. Specifically, India has reached over 400 million WhatsApp users, and authorities in India have taken action against those spreading fake news from WhatsApp by arresting nearly 100 individuals since the start of the pandemic. To mention, these individuals have been arrested in spite of the fact that India does not have any “fake news” laws and instead these cases have been registered under the Indian Penal Code and the Epidemic Disease Act of 1897. Although there is no reliable way for authorities to view which WhatsApp messages may be containing fake news, individuals that have been arrested in India posted WhatsApp messages that contain fake news onto social media platforms such as Facebook. The fake news that has been circulated by suspects includes theories about the origin of the virus and groups within India that may be responsible for the spread of the virus. As a result, WhatsApp has arguably become the epicenter of myths and false cures for COVID-19. Up to now, false cures for COVID-19 that have spread through WhatsApp range from drinking garlic water in order to kill the coronavirus to drinking alcohol. Many of these false cures that are being spread on WhatsApp are based on home remedies that are commonly used for the common cold.
In a case unrelated to COVID-19, the spread of fake news through WhatsApp also resulted in public panic and government distrust in Paris during 2019. Specifically, a report by a French organization called the Association for the Control of Radioactivity (ACRO) stated that nearly 6.4 million people in the Paris region are drinking water contaminated with high levels of tritium. Messages containing this false information began to spread through WhatsApp and advised individuals to stop drinking the tap water altogether. As a result of this seemingly legitimate report and this WhatsApp message, the public began to stop drinking tap water and panic began to spread with individuals expressing distrust in the authorities.
Although the Île-de-France regional health authority tested and confirmed the water as being safe to drink, the point to note is that if fake news spread through a messaging platform can be used to prevent people from drinking something as essential as water the implications of how this may be used in the future is alarming and can place public health and safety at threat. This case follows the historical use of fake news in manipulating individual’s viewpoints, in this case distrust towards the government, and manipulating individuals to act a certain way which in this case involves not drinking tap water.
The safety concerns and potential harm by malicious users from the spread of fake news through WhatsApp is a growing issue that is evidently becoming larger as the messaging platform increases in popularity. With WhatsApp’s current focus being on fake news related to COVID-19, the company has also worked with the World Health Organisation (WHO) in order to create a collaborative response to this issue of fake news by creating the WHO Health Alert. This service will provide reliable information related to COVID-19 for users. Specifically, the WHO Health Alert provides information on helping protect yourself, travel tips, and importantly debunking fake news and myths that have been spread regarding COVID-19. Ultimately, WhatsApp users need to do better at identifying whether information they are viewing is accurate and seek information only from credible sources.