WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook (FB), is coming under renewed scrutiny over how it handles misinformation as the coronavirus pandemic rampages across the globe, infecting more than 200,000 people and killing over 8,000, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
The platform is being used to spread messages that often contain a mixture of accurate and misleading claims that have been debunked by medical experts. The problem is now so acute that world leaders are urging people to stop sharing unverified information using the app.
The misinformation often 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.
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.
“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,” European Commission Vice President Věra Jourová, who oversees the bloc’s efforts to fight disinformation, said in a statement Tuesday.
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 information.