WhatsApp and the Spread of Fake News

Abudigana Altahir

WhatsApp chat groups can be a fertile ground for misinformation & rumor mills to disseminate among older adults, this has been shown to a great extent during the Covid-19 Pandemic.

If you use the WhatsApp app, there is no doubt that you have received some iteration of these viral messages, asking you to do anything from taking part in a mass prayer to make COVID-19 go away to accusing certain people of committing deplorable acts without a shred of evidence.

Young people tend to be more critical of media and are more likely to question information sources due to higher technical literacy due to constant exposure. But there are older people whose first exposure to the monolith known as the internet is through WhatsApp, giving them a warped sense of detecting misinformation.

Many of these massively forwarded messages have been engineered specifically to go viral. Through the illusion of proximity to authority citing that they received this information from X who works at Y. As if it is carefully kept insider knowledge that is being siphoned off and passed to the receiver, even giving them a sense of duty to keep forwarding the message.

If it is a doctor being referred to it is almost always a foreigner, for example, Asian or European, allowing it to be both believable and unverifiable due to distance. With credibility rooted in a sense of inferiority.

I believe the solution to this problem lies in the hands of the youth, we must take responsibility and create an eco-system where the older generations are more likely to discuss such Fake News with an open mind. This could be done through the SIFT method, which is:

  1. Stop.
  2. Investigate the source.
  3. Find better coverage.
  4. Trace claims, quotes, and media to the original context

And three steps for talking to loved ones:

  1. Evaluating if it’s worth engaging
  2. Not patronizing; creating a dialogue rather than a lecture
  3. Offering to trade information and sources.

Beyond the individual fights many of us are involved in, WhatsApp has taken steps to reduce message forwarding. As the messages are end-to-end (turned into secret code), it isn’t possible to analyze or fact-check their content, so under the new changes, once a single message has been forwarded more than five times, users will only be able to forward it on to a single talk/discussion at a time rather than five at once. This will slow the fast-forwarding of chain messages and hopefully encourage users to think more carefully about what they send onwards.

Improved digital literacy, especially in times of increased online presence and globalized fear and stress, is critical for physical and emotional wellbeing. This holds for both the worries of our elders and the worries of their children who are trying to keep them safe.

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