WhatsApp is trying to stop coronavirus misinformation that spreads via forwarded texts
As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, there’s plenty of misinformation out there about the virus and its effects on people and communities. We’ve all seen the texts that have been circulating: “My neighbor’s boyfriend’s uncle’s dog walker works for the city and says the subways will be shut down on Tuesday,” or “My best friend’s mom’s hairstylist’s grandma’s old middle school teacher is a military general and says martial law will be declared on Friday.” Yes, those texts are a little bit ridiculous, but there are plenty of people who believe them — mostly because they get forwarded along by trusted contacts — and now, WhatsApp is doing what it can to help curb this kind of misinformation from spreading.
The free messaging app, which is owned by Facebook, is putting new restrictions on what it calls “frequently forwarded” messages, trying to stop people from being able to mass forward these chain messages that contain misinformation about the pandemic. “Frequently forwarded” messages are defined by WhatsApp as messages that have been forwarded five times or more.
As of Tuesday, if you receive a forwarded message on WhatsApp, you can only forward that message along to one chat at a time, meaning no more conveniently spamming all your contacts with a forwarded chain message. Frequently forwarded messages will now also be marked with a double-arrow icon, to help people see messages that aren’t original.
This is so important, because when our health and lives depend on having accurate information about how to stay safe and healthy, anything that helps slow down dangerous misinformation can only help. There are some wild conspiracy theories out there about the coronavirus, from people who think it’s a government population control tool, to folks who think 5G cell phone towers are spreading the disease.
This isn’t the first time WhatsApp has used its platform to help stop misinformation from spreading. Users of the app used to be able to forward messages to up to 20 people or groups at a time, but in 2018, that was reduced to five after a number of mob killings in India were linked to false information that was forwarded and shared on WhatsApp. But the best thing we can do is to not get our news from places like WhatsApp. The American Press Institute can help you decide whether a news source is credible and trustworthy.