While researchers and nurses are fighting the pandemic, a second illness is spreading on the Internet that makes everything worse: millions of people share rumors, false messages and conspiracy theories on social networks. To stop this infodemic, Whatsapp is now tightening its rules.
“To further limit the spread of false information, Whatsapp is now introducing a new message forwarding restriction,” the company said in a blog entry. Anyone who receives a message that has already been forwarded five or more times can no longer forward it to multiple contacts at the same time.
Since last year, Whatsapp has marked such messages with a gray double arrow – which, however, should not be confused with the double tick, which, depending on the color, stands for successfully transmitted (gray) or read (blue) messages. Since all content on Whatsapp is encrypted end-to-end, the company does not see what users are talking about. Therefore, unlike Facebook, Whatsapp itself cannot check or block messages.
Whatsapp originally introduced the restrictions only in India. There, targeted false messages are said to have triggered violence. Hateful mobs killed dozens of people. Allegedly, WhatsApp messages were passed on en masse. The forwarding was later reduced to a maximum of five contacts worldwide. According to Whatsapp, the number of forwarded messages fell by 25 percent.
In the current corona crisis, Whatsapp “has noticed a significant increase in the number of messages being forwarded”. In some cases, users only wanted to pass on information to their personal contacts or coordinate local help offers. However, the flood of news could also contribute to the spread of false information.
“False messages spread faster than the virus, and they’re just as dangerous,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in February. The infodemic can cause panic or make people act lightly. In times of a pandemic, human life can cost because the virus may spread faster.
5G conspiracy theories mix with corona panic
An example from Great Britain shows that Corona nonsense does not stay online: In the past few days, people have set fire to several cell towers. They had seen videos with conspiracy theories and were convinced that the 5G mobile communication standard spreaded the lung disease Covid-19. Engineers and construction workers were also attacked.
Alice Echtermann for the research center funded by the foundation Corrective Checked for false reports, Whatsapp calls the “main distribution channel” for rumors and disinformation about the corona virus. For months, people there have been sharing chain letters that contain misleading or incorrect information.
Corrective recently subjected the alleged letter from an Italian doctor to a fact check, which is persistently shared online – a large number of the claims are demonstrably false. The research center advises responding to such messages with a fact-checking chain letter. This could possibly help to contain such false messages. The SZ has also put together ten tips against lies online.