WhatsApp is limiting message forwarding as coronavirus misinformation takes hold in Africa

WhatsApp vs Covid-19
WhatsApp vs Covid-19
Image: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration
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WhatsApp is trying again to limit the spread of misinformation through its platform.

The social media messaging app is deploying changes to its settings that limit how easily messages can be forwarded: once a message has now been forwarded more than five times, users will only be able to forward it to one chat at a time. It’s an update of previous changes which saw message forwarding limited to only five chats at a time.

It’s a tactic that had some success: after dropping forwarding limits to five chats, WhatsApp says it saw a 25% drop in messaging forwarding globally. Essentially, WhatsApp is hoping the extra effort required to forward messages becomes a deterrent for users

But one flaw in that plan is that, with messages still being forwarded to large groups which can hold 256 people, misinformation can still reach hundreds of people instantly. It’s a reality increasingly seen across Africa, where bogus coronavirus theories are making the rounds in countries like Nigeria, from claims that the virus can only infect rich people or that the outbreak is a hoax by local politicians to loot public funds.

In Nigeria, as is often the case with misinformation on WhatsApp, the current made-up theories are gaining more traction among older users. “[Older relatives] are the ones who rebroadcast majorly because they don’t have a deep understanding of most of the messages. I had to sit my mum down and explain some things to her,” says Funmilayo Finnih, a Lagos-based schoolteacher who’s part of several WhatsApp groups for family, business and work.

“One woman told us to stay out in the sun for like 30 minutes in the morning, so that our body will absorb heat which will kill the virus if it enters the body. Another one said we should cut onions into halves and put in the corners of the house, so it will attract and kill the virus,” she adds.

A Nigeria-focused report by the Center for Democracy and Development and the University of Birmingham has attributed the higher propensity for misinformation to spread among older users to lower digital literacy and a reliance on trusted social networks which nudges them to believe information when sent by people they know.

It’s a problem that manifests across Africa given WhatsApp’s massive popularity: even knock-off versions of the app are more used than Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram in major African markets.

From Cameroon to Zimbabwe, Quartz Africa writers and their friends have been receiving dozens of messages via WhatsApp over the last month on everything from traditional African cures, conspiracy theories and potential vaccines to traditional conspiracy theories about potential vaccines.

In Ghana, there are WhatsApp voice notes being shared by Ghanaians who claim to be living in China or Europe. As Quartz Accra correspondent Kwasi Gyamfi Asiedu writes, “In the voice notes, mostly in local languages, they say things like boiling and drinking the local aidan fruit (known locally as prekese) helped them beat coronavirus. According to them, the reason why white people are dying is because they don’t use this particular fruit.”

But even before WhatsApp’s latest updates, one homegrown solution had already shown promise in countering some misinformation.

In the wake of the outbreak, South Africa’s national health department set up an automated WhatsApp support service that shares vital information ranging from symptoms, prevention tips and testing information to users after a keyword prompt. The service has since been adopted  by the World Health Organization to raise awareness globally. Twitter and Facebook have also announced Africa-focused measures to tackle coronavirus-related misinformation.

While these measures take hold, individual users can attempt to play more active roles in shutting down misinformation. Bernice Ololade, a Lagos-based news editor says she’s seen a change in her 55-year old mother’s awareness about misinformation since having a major talk about WhatsApp broadcasts a year ago. “She now comes to me to check some of them and she just ignores the rest,” she explains.

But not everyone has such luck, especially with heightened public anxiety amid the coronavirus outbreak. “I tried sensitizing those in some of the WhatsApp groups I belong to but someone asked if I am an agent of the Chinese government,” says Finnih.

“I ended up leaving the group.”

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