According to CNN, misleading and inaccurate information about the coronavirus pandemic on messaging platform WhatsApp has world leaders urging people to ignore and stop sharing unverified information.
WhatsApp, owned by social media site Facebook, is under scrutiny for how it handles misinformation that is passed around by its users. Many of the messages include information about the pandemic that medical experts have already debunked. However, messages exchanged on the platform are encrypted, only able to be seen by sender and receiver, which has made it difficult for public health officials to track and stop the spread of misinformation.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar made a public plea on Twitter this past Monday.
“I am urging everyone to please stop sharing unverified info on WhatsApp groups. These messages are scaring and confusing people and causing real damage. Please get your info from official, trusted sources.”
Some of the messages being passed around include information purportedly from a doctor, public health official, or government worker, allowing them to appear more legitimate. While some include information about how to prevent the spread of the disease, such as properly washing hands, others perpetuate wildly misleading claims about the virus.
One popular message claims that drinking warm water every 15 minutes will neutralize the virus, tying into the theme that hot fluids prevent the coronavirus from spreading in the body. Users are also advised to avoid drinking ice water for this same purpose.
Another false piece of advice that has been widely circulated instructs people to drink water every 15 to 20 minutes to flush the virus down into the stomach where it will be killed by stomach acid.
European Commission Vice President Věra Jourová made a statement about the issue.
“It is clear… that a lot of false information continues to appear in the public sphere. In particular, we need to understand better the risks related to communication on end-to-end encryption services.”
The head of WhatsApp, Will Cathcart, responded on Twitter, announcing that the company is implementing local fact checkers to stop the spread of misinformation in addition to promoting fact checking organizations on Facebook. The new measures will include free, clickable ads that direct people to a WhatsApp chat with the corresponding organization or health ministry.
Jourová appreciates WhatsApp’s efforts to minimize the spread of false claims, but points out that much of the misinformation is created and perpetuated by individual users of the app, making it hard to track.
Experts agree that the best way to stop misinformation is to properly educate people about the coronavirus in addition to teaching them how to spot false information on websites and platforms, such as WhatsApp.