Ever since WhatsApp was created in 2009, it has been the single most popular platform for mass-spreading information through a single tap. Users have been sending and receiving information in the form of forwarded text messages on the app since the beginning of its global popularity. Initially, these messages being forwarded were not labeled so, and due to end-to-end encryption of these texts, it became impossible for authorities to determine the origin of forwarded texts which spread misinformation, hate speech, violence calls and threats.
In July 2018, WhatsApp became the base for spreading misinformation in India, where it ultimately led to killings of half a dozen people by an Indian Mob. Later in 2018, WhatsApp began labeling its forwarded messages by adding two arrows to show that the message has been forwarded repeatedly. Last year, WhatsApp limited its user’s forwarding limit to 5 at a time. This update led forward messages to drop by 25%.
However, amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, WhatsApp has been highly criticized by the public and users for its ability to become the source for false information quickly. Since the beginning of 2020, WhatsApp had been used for forwarding false information about “cures” for coronavirus. There were also message chains that spread misinformation about a few “corona-prevention drugs” to use to avoid catching the disease, as well as military activity related to COVID-19. The prime minister of Ireland, Leo Varadkar, urged people to refrain from sharing unauthorized information on WhatsAapp groups to prevent further spread of misinformation in the middle of a worldwide epidemic.
WhatsApp’s blog post about the matter states:
“We know many users forward helpful information, as well as funny videos, memes, and reflections or prayers they find meaningful. In recent weeks, people have also used WhatsApp to organize public moments of support for frontline health workers. However, we’ve seen a significant increase in the amount of forwarding which users have told us can feel overwhelming and can contribute to the spread of misinformation. We believe it’s important to slow the spread of these messages down to keep WhatsApp a place for a personal conversation.”
World Health Organization (WHO) has called this disease as an “infodemic” of misinformation, prompting governments and other authorities to urge social media companies to do more to combat the problem. In response to all concerns raised about this matter, WhatsApp has promoted a bot made by WHO, which provides information about the disease by verified sources. The company has also donated $1 million to this global cause.
See our previous coverage of how Youtube stepped in to restrict 5G and COVID-19 conspiracy theories after Brits set 5G towers ablaze.