Our Family WhatsApps Are Full Of Coronavirus Misinformation, And We Need To Talk About It

I know we have a responsibility to call out conspiracy theories and fake news online, but I’m finding it’s easier said than done, writes Isobel Lewis.
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It’s hard to believe that it’s been just weeks since the UK was brought to a standstill over coronavirus – I for one have settled into my new routine of government regulated walks and essential trips to the shop. However, helplessness has set in as I find myself waging war against coronavirus on a whole new front: WhatsApp.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock – for which, given the circumstances, I wouldn’t blame you – you’ve probably encountered coronavirus misinformation on social media in the last month. Whether it’s hastily forwarded coronavirus conspiracy theories or clearly faked screenshots that have previously prompted an eye roll and chuckle, they’ve drastically increased in frequency and infiltrated major public conversations. From Houseparty and Monzo being forced to deny rumours that they’re on the brink of collapse to the government stating that there was “zero per cent” of a rumoured “total lockdown” in London, unsubstantiated reports are spreading from WhatsApp into the news without substantial evidence.

These messages generally follow the same format (as the now infamous giant lasagne voice note proved), with someone telling you that their friend’s mate/cousin/colleague works in the NHS/Army/Home Office and wants you to know we are being misled. In my experience, they have usually been passed on by someone already scared about the virus, with the messages confirming their fears. As soon as one arrives, I’m filled with dread: not at the message’s content, which can be verified with a quick Google, but knowing that I’ll have to address it.

We’ve all heard the term ‘fake news’ bandied around, but no matter how media literate you may be, there seems to be a disconnect between the evidenceless messages we share with our friends and actual fake news.

“In an ideal world, we should find it easy to call out any misinformation we receive on WhatsApp... But as we’re slowly realising, this is far harder to do than you’d expect.”

Growing up as a teenager with access to the internet, my generation was taught internet literacy from a young age. For us, forwarded WhatsApp messages were scaremongering chain emails, and secondary school assemblies covered how to spot them and what not to believe. In an ideal world, we should find it easy to call out any misinformation we receive on WhatsApp, kindly educating the sender so they don’t repeat this pattern.

But as we’re slowly realising, this is far harder to do than you’d expect. We’re British, it’s in our nature to avoid confrontation at all costs – and the thought of straining an already distanced relationship with a loved one during a global pandemic makes my skin crawl.

In many ways, it’s easier to call out misinformation that’s clearly faked or ludicrous, knowing that you’re likely to be backed up by another chat member or that the sender will probably understand. Things get tougher when it comes to the posts which aren’t so obviously damaging, but still contribute to this culture of misinformation.

One such message sent my way contained “18 wise words from Bill Gates” on coronavirus, telling its readers that the pandemic was “a great corrector” to humanity’s destruction of the planet. While the sentiment seemed harmless enough, one quick Google showed that it had obviously not come from Bill Gates.

“I really don’t blame anyone for falling for these messages. We all feel helpless in this situation of unknowns.”

Having promised myself I would highlight any misinformation, no matter how neutral seeming, I pointed out that the message was nice, but that a quick fact check would show it wasn’t from the Microsoft co-founder. “It’s not fact, it’s opinion,” they replied, clearly annoyed. I couldn’t really blame them, as they weren’t wrong: the words were opinion. But they weren’t Gates’ and his name gave them a validity they didn’t deserve.

Many mates have had similar experiences, knowing they have to call out their friends and family for behaviour they’ve previously laughed off, and subsequently being made to feel guilty for doing so. You can preface your messages with the words “I’m not blaming you for sending me this” all you like, but that’s a message hard to convey over text without seeming patronising.

What’s frustrating is I really don’t blame anyone for falling for these messages. We all feel helpless in this situation of unknowns. And with trust for political figures already at a low, a message telling you that, yes, you are being lied to only confirms those fears. Messages aren’t passed on maliciously, but with the hope of stopping loved ones from being kept in the dark.

For my parents’ generation, the outbreak of covid-19 is both the biggest crisis they’ve ever experienced, and the first time they’ve had this influx of information – and misinformation – to contest with. My generation was raised on the internet, and that means I have a duty to call it out for everyone’s sake. But that doesn’t mean it’ll ever be easy.

Isobel Lewis is a features journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @izlew

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