COVID-19: Social Media Conspiracy

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Following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) Governments and medical officials are scrambling to provide the public with accurate and timely information about the pandemic virus, but those efforts are being undermined by the spread of misinformation and fake cures on social media platforms.

WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook (FB), is coming under renewed scrutiny over how it handles misinformation as the coronavirus pandemic rampages across the globe, infecting more than 200,000 people and killing over 8,000, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

The platform is being used to spread messages that often contain a mixture of accurate and misleading claims that have been debunked by medical experts. The problem is now so acute that world leaders are urging people to stop sharing unverified information using the social media.

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“I am urging everyone to please stop sharing unverified info on WhatsApp groups,” Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said Monday on Twitter. “These messages are scaring and confusing people and causing real damage. Please get your info from official and trusted sources.”

The misinformation often arrives on smartphones in messages that have been forwarded by a friend or relative, and includes information purportedly from a prominent doctor or a friend of a friend who works in government. Many of the messages mix sound advice, such as how to wash your hands properly, with misinformation. One false claim that is circulating: drinking warm water every 15 minutes will neutralize the coronavirus.

Because WhatsApp messages are encrypted in a way that allows them to be seen only by the sender and recipient, public health officials and watchdog groups are struggling to track the spread of coronavirus misinformation. WhatsApp itself does not monitor the flow of messages on the platform.

“It is clear that a lot of false information continues to appear in the public sphere. In particular, we need to understand better the risks related to communication on end-to-end encryption services,” European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova, who oversees the bloc’s efforts to fight disinformation, said in a statement Tuesday.

WhatsApp says it has taken steps to curb misinformation, it is donating to fact checking groups and users can forward messages to special accounts that can verify information.

“There are over a dozens of local fact checkers so far, and we want more to be able to do their important work so rumors are identified and countered,” Will Cathcart, the head of WhatsApp, said on Twitter.

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