WhatsApp has a fake news problem: Here’s everything that it’s doing to fight it in wake of Coronavirus outbreak

Misinformation about COVID-19 can be as dangerous as the virus itself. It was only about time that WhatsApp stepped up it game.

It’s taken a pandemic, but WhatsApp seems to be finally getting serious about fighting fake news. (Photo credit: Reuters)

WhatsApp is popular no doubt, but it also gets a lot of flak or negative press. For having failed to do enough to curb the menace of fake news on its widely-used platform. Globally of course, but even more so in India which is WhatsApp’s biggest market. You can say that because it’s so popular, it’s only fair that WhatsApp be treated with an equivalent amount of scrutiny, you know, how with great power also comes great responsibility and all.

WhatsApp does have a fake news problem but to be fair, it’s just how the whole thing has been built, that makes it difficult for even WhatsApp — which is now owned by Facebook — to come up with a full-proof mechanism to kill misinformation at the source. And before you know it, the message has already received ‘viral’ status. WhatsApp chats are end-to-end encrypted, which is also their main selling point, which makes things complicated. Call it a necessary evil, if you may.

Regardless, WhatsApp has also been criticized, time and again, for having failed to do enough to curb the spread of fake news, something that’s again easier said than done. It’s taken a pandemic, but WhatsApp seems to be finally getting serious about this particular aspect. A number of steps that it has taken over the course of the last few weeks suggest likewise.

But before we begin jotting down the steps that WhatsApp is taking in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak, it’s important to understand the reasons why it’s so popular.

  • WhatsApp is a totally free mobile application that’s available on Android, iOS and web.
  • WhatsApp is totally ad-free (as of the moment)
  • All WhatsApp chats are end-to-end encrypted

It’s a chatter’s paradise, is what it is, which is why it also holds a much greater responsibility towards the society as a whole. For some perspective, more than 400 million people in India are looking up to WhatsApp for their messaging needs. WhatsApp has come under the radar, for the wrong reasons, quite a few times in the past, but novel coronavirus might just be the tipping point. Misinformation about COVID-19 can be as dangerous as the virus itself. Case in point, there is no official cure for novel coronavirus right now and yet several remedies have been found to be circulating on WhatsApp – including homeopathy and drinking hot water. With that out of the way, here’s everything that WhatsApp is doing in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

— New WhatsApp chat forward limit

WhatsApp has announced that it will now limit all users to forward a message only once per chat. The limit applies to what WhatsApp calls ‘frequently’ forwarded messages.WhatsApp will allow users to forward a given message up to five times, as is usually the case. But once the given message has been forwarded up to five times (or more), WhatsApp’s new forward ‘limit’ will come into effect. This means, users will not be able to forward a message that has already been forwarded five times (or more), more than once. The new limit on frequently forwarded messages is aimed at constraining ‘virality.’

— Google searching the authenticity of WhatsApp chat forward

WhatsApp has confirmed that it is working on a feature that would allow users to cross-check the authenticity of a message — preferably a forward — on Google before passing it on to others. “That idea involves displaying a magnifying glass icon next to these frequently forwarded messages, giving users the option to send that message to a web search where they can find news results or other sources of information. Double-checking these messages before forwarding may help reduce the spread of rumors,” WhatsApp says about the new feature, adding that it is currently in testing. More details are awaited.

— WhatsApp Coronavirus Information Hub

WhatsApp has partnered with the World Health Organisation (WHO), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to launch WhatsApp Coronavirus Information Hub, a dedicated webpage to highlight how the instant messaging app could be used more responsibly in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

The Coronavirus Information Hub has been designed for health workers, educators, community leaders, non-profit organisations, local governments, and local businesses that use WhatsApp  to effectively tackle the growing menace of fake news or misinformation circulating on the platform while staying connected.

— Indian government, WHO available on WhatsApp to bust fake news

The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Indian government’s Press Information Bureau (PIB) are available on WhatsApp to curb the menace of growing fake news or misinformation around novel coronavirus. While WHO can be reached out at +41-798931892, PIB is available at +918799711259 on WhatsApp. Both WHO and PIB have joined the instant messaging platform to provide accurate information about the coronavirus pandemic in these difficult times.

— WhatsApp fund for fact checking 

WhatsApp has committed $1 million to Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) to help curb fake news relating to the pandemic on the instant messaging platform.

And lastly, here’s a  message from WhatsApp that must be taken very seriously —

“Think about the messages that you receive, because not everything you are sent about coronavirus may be accurate. Verify the facts with other trusted official sources or fact checkers. If you aren’t sure something’s true, don’t forward it.”

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First published on: 07-04-2020 at 17:46 IST