WhatsApp is a Petri Dish of Coronavirus Misinformation

Why it’s so hard to stop fake news on the giant messaging platform.

Sinduja Rangarajan

March 30, 2020

WhatsApp is a Petri Dish of Coronavirus Misinformation
WhatsApp (Rachit Tank)

This story was originally published on Mother Jones and has been updated.

Not long ago, a close relative of mine forwarded a message on a WhatsApp family group that claimed rasam cures coronavirus. Rasam, a soup-like concoction of herbs, tamarind juice, and lentils, is the cultural equivalent of chicken soup (but vegetarian) in South India, where I am from. Normally, I’d search on the internet to check if a post that seemed suspicious was false, like one I saw that claimed that a well-known British writer had endorsed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (He didn’t.) But in this case, I didn’t have to Google anything to know this was factually incorrect. As a friend pointed out on Twitter, rasam may cure homesickness and winter blues, but it is no cure for coronavirus.

When I politely pointed out that they might have sent a fake post, the sender retorted, “It has pepper and jeera [cumin] and it will build up your immunity.” All I could do was 🙄.

A few days later, another relative forwarded a post in WhatsApp with “facts about the coronavirus” supposedly put out by UNICEF. While most of the “facts” were innocuous, including instructions to vigorously wash hands, some were unproven, like a claim that the virus can’t survive at high temperatures. It turns out the post didn’t come from UNICEF at all. When my husband pointed out that the post seemed inaccurate, the relative replied, “But what’s the harm in following all this?” unconcerned by fake news simply because it was fake.

Misinformation on WhatsApp isn’t unique to my family or even my country. The app, which is owned by Facebook, is one of the world’s most popular messaging platforms, particularly in countries where internet infrastructure is sparse and underdeveloped.