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WhatsApp Forwards: Covid-19 In The Era Of Fake News And Misinformation

This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

Introduction:

With the outbreak of covid-19, the Indian government is trying everything they can to get rid of it. Meanwhile, within the country, another virus of fake news and misinformation grows with rapid speed. Fake news, mainly spreading through social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, etc. leads to an information crisis during this epidemic. 

WhatsApp has over 1.5 billion active users worldwide, out of which 400 million active users are from India. It’s observing a significant increase in the number of fake forwards since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. “We believe it’s important to slow down the speed of their messages to keep WhatsApp a place of personal conversations,” an official at WhatsApp said. 

As billions of people are unable to see their friends and families in person due to covid-19, people are relying on WhatsApp more than ever to have conversations with doctors, teachers, friends, etc. During this sensitive time, fake news regarding this epidemic is spreading even faster, while authorities have framed several penal actions for those spreading fake news. Widespread misinformation surrounding the diseases has seen people drinking disinfectants and industrial alcohol while trying various rumoured treatments.

Rational Reasoning Behind WhatsApp Forward:

whatsapp
WhatsApp currently has over 1.5 billion monthly active users worldwide, out of which 400 million active users are from India.

WhatsApp; India’s most popular messaging platform turns out to be one of the most used apps for forwarding fake news. These days, fake news and misinformation about government policies, corona updates, covid-19 treatment, etc. spread like wildfire. Apart from amplifying the agenda of specific people or things, fake news has resulted in more than 100 deaths this year. 

Even when the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus rises rapidly in the country; what’s more worrying is the fake news about the disease spreading on WhatsApp. Take a look on some of these fake forwards:

  • “A Chinese doctor has found a cure to the coronavirus”. 
  • “Wuhan coronavirus can be cured by one bowl of freshly boiled garlic water”.

But WHO has specified that there’s no scientific evidence to clarify it. Why does fake news propagate so fast on WhatsApp? In order to understand this propagation of fake news, we need to study the different age groups using WhatsApp. 

People aged 21–28 do it because they don’t know how to verify the news if it seems fake to them. They blindly forward the messages, keeping in mind the strong vibes of “nation-building”. This age group does not refrain from forwarding information regarding politics, government policies and even religious misinformation. 

Another section of people belonging to the age group of 30–48 accepts that they carry on the information or any message they think is genuine. These people claim that they have an excellent idea of what fake news looks like. They only forward the one which they seem carries the truth.

On evaluating, it seems that people who are less aware of the news are more prone to forwarding fake news. They don’t want to restrain any information to themselves in case it’s true and help people they know.

Chain Of Misinformation Leading to Chaos: 

India currently has 450 million active internet users; 97% of all smartphone users use different types of apps to communicate, of which 96% use WhatsApp as their main choice. During the era of the internet and the number of people using WhatsApp, it becomes easy to transfer news easily with a single click. Recently, in the riot-hit areas of Delhi, online rumours of mob violence kept people on their edge. The perpetuation of online rumours on social media is not a new phenomenon in a country like India. 

Over the past few years, this country has witnessed multiple violent incidents that were triggered by online posts. In 2012, during what became commonly known as “Northeast Exodus“, thousands of people who were natives of northeast India boarded trains from many parts of Southern India to Guwahati, following the online post that suggested that there were violent attacks on northeast migrants. 

In March 2020, a WhatsApp forward which circulated said, “If you can hold your breath for 10 seconds without coughing and difficulty in breathing, it indicates the absence of the covid-19 infection”. But the claim is extremely bogus as coughing is only one of the many symptoms. There can also be patients that only have a fever or body aches.

wolf blitzer fake news
Some people have shared this image online of US journalist Wolf Blitzer with CNNs logo. It has gone viral and is being shared on Facebook and Whatsapp.

In the same line, we have another fake WhatsApp forward which says “constant sex kills the coronavirus”. To make this message more authentic it was coupled with a CNN logo and anchor Wolf Blitzer. Another fake forward claimed that the Chinese government was directly shooting corona patients and had killed almost 4,500 people.

This kind of misinformation is spread by reactionary users who don’t verify the news before forwarding. This can be seen in an incident that recently happened in Mumbai. Thousands of migrant workers gathered at Bandra station to get transport to their native places. When asked why they were there in large numbers, they said that there were rumours that the Maharashtra government had made arrangements for them.

An FIR had been lodged against the person who ignited the incident. This type of incident in the phase of social distancing is worrying. But all this chaos happened because of a chain of fake news forward that led to the destruction of the state machinery.

Guidelines Issued by Central and State Governments to Curb Fake WhatsApp Forwards:

The coronavirus pandemic has taken the whole world by the storm. Around 5 lakh deaths have been reported till now and there are more than 38 lakh active cases currently. The Indian government is leaving no stone unturned to combat the dreaded disease. Simultaneously, covid-19 myths and misinformation are also being spread with the rapid speed. During this crisis, India has witnessed many incidents where fake news has destroyed the state machinery. 

Mass gatherings at petrol pumps on the night of 21 March were seen when PM Modi announced the first lockdown. Same chaos was seen at grocery stores as there were rumours that the supply of daily essential goods would cease as soon as the lockdown started. In order to curb the spread of such misinformation, the Government of India launched a help desk on the very popular messaging platform WhatsApp named “MyGov Corona”, aimed at creating awareness about covid-19 and help citizens feel safe. 

mygov corona helpdesk
In a bid to reduce misinformation related to COVID-19, the Government launched a chatbot on WhatsApp.

To make use of this MyGov Corona help desk, save the number 9013151515 in your contact list and send any corona related query to get an answer. “We have created this WhatsApp chat board on coronavirus. Just say Hi! On WhatsApp and get an automatic response on a query related to the coronavirus,” a representative from the ministry of electronic information and technology said. 

The central government has also set up an email id — ncov2019@gov.in — to resolve the queries of the citizens regarding covid-19. The ministry of health has also created a webpage that provides all covid-19 related information.

WhatsApp Authority Helping to Curb Fake Forwards:

Since people all around the world are staying indoors due to the lockdown, there exists no physical communication among people. WhatsApp has emerged as a tool at this time. The company has witnessed a significant increase in the number of forwards that are overwhelming and can contribute to the spread of misinformation.

Thus, it makes sense for WhatsApp authority to limit frequently forwarded messages to only one user at a time, which was previously five users. But this applies to only frequently forwarded messages. A newer version provides a sticker label on top of the message if it’s not original. WhatsApp also provides an option to verify forwarded messages online. This new move by the Facebook-owned company is aimed to slow down the spread of fake news during this pandemic. This new update doesn’t mean that users can’t forward messages to multiple users.

Conclusion:

With the outbreak of covid-19, declared a pandemic by the WHO, the government is doing everything they can to get rid of this deadly virus. But one thing that’s not in the hands of the government is the propagation of fake news. 

This article talked about the different age groups and their rationale for the act. Incidents like crowd gatherings at railway stations or petrol pumps, it becomes clear that there exists someone who has made this happen intentionally. These are the people who don’t care about the nation. They hit the innocent public with their ideas that spread like a fire in a bush. 

During this time, everyone is fearful of what’s going around. What they see on social media or TV hits them hard as they aren’t able to witness the ground reality due to countrywide lockdown. Measures that were taken by the government and WhatsApp authorities are not sufficient to completely stop the spread of fake news. These control measures only limit it to some extent. 

As people around the nation are indoors and have plenty of time to check and verify news before forwarding, it’s our responsibility to do so.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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