Amid fears of a possible Ebola outbreak in Nigeria during the devastating epidemic that plagued West Africa in 2014, a WhatsApp broadcast made the rounds:
“Please ensure that you and your family and all your neighbors bathe with hot water and salt before daybreak today because of Ebola virus which is spreading through the air,“ it read.
Even though there was no medical basis for it, the “prescription” went viral enough for the government to officially debunk it. But that ultimately proved futile, as at least two people died and several others were hospitalized over excessive salt consumption.
The incident offered a snapshot of how misinformation spreads unchecked on social media platforms, especially WhatsApp. Crucially, older Nigerians served as key conduits for that WhatsApp broadcast as several recipients—even beyond Nigeria—say they got the broadcast from parents, grandparents, and older relatives. Given the potent mix of fear (the outbreak killed over 11,000 people across West Africa) and uncertain information about the virus and the disease, older Nigerians were particularly quick to spread the bogus prevention technique in a bid to “save” family and friends.
But that Ebola broadcast was not a one-off. With family WhatsApp groups so popular, a common complaint among younger Nigerians revolves around the barrage of forwarded messages which range from improbable to ludicrous that are shared by parents and grandparents.
But there’s an explanation for this. In some ways, WhatsApp is the internet for older users.
Unlike other social platforms which require creating and managing online profiles as well fast-moving interactions older users may be unable to keep up with, WhatsApp condenses the experience of having personal and group conversations, sharing photos and videos, receiving and sharing news into a one-stop shop platform that mirrors regular text messaging in its ease of use. “WhatsApp is the closest to SMS, which is the simplest of the lot. I don’t have to try remembering your handle or go to a platform to message you. That is appealing for everyone, not just the 60-plus age group,” says Gbenga Sesan, founder of Paradigm Initiative, a digital rights-focused social enterprise.
WhatsApp can also be thought of as a “walled garden” for a generation that’s too old to keep up with the vastness, complexity, and fast-moving pace of the wider internet. As such, just as WhatsApp is both an entry point for social media and internet use, it can also a bubble.
Part of the problem lies in how WhatsApp is structured and how it works as its biggest strength—end-to-end encryption on messages—is also its key weakness. The platform has admitted to struggling with finding ways to detect and manage the flow and impact of misinformation. WhatsApp’s potential as a tool for misinformation is further amplified by its sheer popularity: it’s the most popular messaging app across several African countries, including Nigeria. Local telecoms operators have also created WhatsApp-only data bundles for users.
Despite the modernity of WhatsApp and the technology that powers it, the driving force of the spread of misinformation, especially among older users, is linked to an old concept: social trust.
In a recent report by the Center for Democracy and Development and the University of Birmingham on WhatsApp’s role during Nigeria’s February elections, some respondents cited parents and grandparents as the “biggest sharers” of misinformation. “It was something we heard quite a lot,” says Jamie Hitchen, one of the report’s authors. “While younger people have more critical thinking with sharing when it comes to digital platforms, older people were reported to be far more willing.” The report attributes that tendency to share as being down to a lack of digital literacy and a reliance on trusted social networks.
“It’s the same way wealth is created among trusting friends: you get, you share,” Sesan says. “At 60, you’ve probably grown to get information in a world where trust existed, where verification and media were synonymous. Unfortunately, digital tools don’t follow old school traditional verification and trust ethos.”
For his part, Olurotimi Alade, a 60-year old university teacher and father of three, says his trust in “the integrity” of the sender of information “plays a huge role” in his decision to forward messages. And while he tries to fact-check information before forwarding as much as possible, he says “some alarming information appear to be of such immediate concern that forwarding them without probably verifying would most likely to be the prudent thing to do.”
For parents and older relatives, those sort of messages revolve around the safety of loved ones, however improbable the information appears to be. Sherifat, a 54-year old retired bank director, who also forwarded the salt-water Ebola cure to her daughter eight years ago, says she did so out of fear. “Even if I didn’t believe it, it was better to be careful,” she says.
WhatsApp understands the scale of its fake news problem. Earlier this year, it pegged its message forwarding limit to five people to “help keep WhatsApp focused on private messaging” with close contacts. “The change has reduced messaging behavior by around 25% globally,” a WhatsApp spokesperson told Quartz.
But with its groups feature largely unaffected, the flow of misinformation remains prominent: “one random person can share into a trusted network and that gets shared on,” Sesan says. CDD’s report also noted that 73% of respondents said the average size of the groups they were in was 50 or more people. WhatsApp groups can hold up to 256 members.
As added measures, WhatsApp now labels forwarded messages and has also recently introduced a “frequently forwarded” label to alert users when they received messages that “were previously forwarded several times.” It is also introducing more controls for group admins to allow them determine members that can send messages.
WhatsApp has also relied on mass media to solve its fake news problem. “In the run-up to the Nigeria national election, WhatsApp made significant product changes to limit the spread of viral content, banned accounts engaging in automated or bulk messaging, and sponsored a broad education campaign on broadcast platforms in Nigeria including on the radio, print, and online,” the WhatsApp spokesperson says.
Some solutions have also come from third-party groups. During Nigeria’s general elections, a coalition of journalists set up a WhatsApp business channel for crowd-sourcing questionable claims from the public which were then fact-checked with users encouraged to spread accurate fact-checked reports just as widely as the initial claims.
But none of these solutions focus primarily on older users.
One possible fix could come in the form of younger members of family groups on WhatsApp challenging and correcting their parents when questionable claims are shared. That’s unlikely though, given Nigeria’s conservative family culture, which often places obeisance above perceived dissent. Yet those who are brave enough to try are hardly guaranteed success either: Akinlabi, a 24-year old Lagos-based filmmaker, still gets broadcasts with questionable claims from mum despite several conversations about mindless forwarding.
And so the big question: is it too late to improve the levels of awareness of fake news among older users of WhatsApp in Nigeria?
Sesan says “the short answer is yes.” And Hitchen largely agrees: “It’s difficult to think of a short term solution to solve the problem. It’s got to be long term thinking on how to improve digital literacy but it will be more difficult among older people with less understanding of these things work.”