COVID-19

WhatsApp’s privacy features make it a hotbed for COVID-19 hoaxes

Jasmine Garsd Mar 23, 2020
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Stan Honda/AFP via Getty Images
COVID-19

WhatsApp’s privacy features make it a hotbed for COVID-19 hoaxes

Jasmine Garsd Mar 23, 2020
Stan Honda/AFP via Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

There is a lot of misinformation circulating when it comes to COVID-19. Fake cures. Conspiracy theories.

Twitter, YouTube and Facebook have stepped up their efforts to slow the spread of rumors by deleting false information. But Facebook’s WhatsApp — used by 2 billion people worldwide — is proving much more difficult to police.

A couple of weeks ago, WhatsApp launched an ad campaign on Brazilian TV. In it, two people who are rivals in public secretly connect over WhatsApp to help their neighborhood. The tag line is: “Fica so entre voces”: “It stays just between the two of you.”

This is WhatsApp’s selling point, that it’s private

“WhatsApp actually was one of the pioneers of what’s known as end-to-end encryption,” said Adrian Shahbaz, research director for technology and democracy at Freedom House. “WhatsApp cannot read any messages that are passed from person to person along its platform.”  

Shahbaz said this is really important, especially in authoritarian countries. While WhatsApp is more popular outside the U.S., it’s commonly used by immigrant communities here. It’s a cliché: If you have aunties and uncles from India, Venezuela or Nigeria, your family WhatsApp group will bombard you with news stories, jokes and advice.

During this pandemic, it also means receiving messages like the one Rafael Tablado, from Tijuana, recently got, instructing him not to drink anything cold. Only hot beverages. 

“The virus would get sent down to the stomach, and be destroyed,” Tablado said. That was just the beginning. Soon friends and family were sending him messages about how Egypt found a cure.

Just to be clear, none of those are true. The conspiracy theories have gotten so bad that Ireland’s prime minister asked WhatsApp users to stop sharing unverified information.  

Cristina Tardáguila, associate director of Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network, said WhatsApp’s privacy features mean there’s no way to search for conspiracy theories in order to stop their spread.

“In Twitter, in Facebook, in Google, in other social media that are not encrypted, there are tools that let us fact checkers know what is going viral, what is trending, so we can see if there is bad information or some hoax that needs to be debunked,” Tardáguila said.

WhatsApp has started promoting the International Fact-Checking Network to desktop users. The hope is when people get a message, they’ll send it for confirmation. Tardáguila said she’d also like to see it just get harder to forward messages.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Are states ready to roll out COVID-19 vaccines?

Claire Hannan, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Immunization Managers, which represents state health officials, said states have been making good progress in their preparations. And we could have several vaccines pretty soon. But states still need more funding, she said. Hannan doesn’t think a lack of additional funding would hold up distribution initially, but it could cause problems down the road. “It’s really worrisome that Congress may not pass funding or that there’s information circulating saying that states don’t need additional funding,” she said.

How is the service industry dealing with the return of coronavirus restrictions?

Without another round of something like the Paycheck Protection Program, which kept a lot of businesses afloat during the pandemic’s early stages, the outlook is bleak for places like restaurants. Some in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, only got one week of indoor dining back before cases rose and restrictions went back into effect. Restaurant owners are revamping their business models in an effort to survive while waiting to see if they’ll be able to get more aid.

How are hospitals handling the nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases?

As the pandemic surges and more medical professionals themselves are coming down with COVID, nearly 1 in 5 hospitals in the country report having a critical shortage of staff, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. One of the knock-on effects of staff shortages is that people who have other medical needs are being asked to wait.

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