WhatsApp Groups Are Spreading Coronavirus Myths. Here’s How To Avoid Them

It's easy to be sucked into sharing misguided information but it's important to follow the most reliable advice.

It’s easy to read something that sounds true on social media. It’s even easier to read it and forward it on... just in case.

I recently received a message from a fellow parent on the school WhatsApp ‘Year Three’ group – which includes around 100 other parents and carers – sharing the “latest warnings” about coronavirus.

The trouble is, much of the information being shared to such a large group of people was wrong – according to what we know from medical experts.

The message began in a similar way to many internet chain letters, appearing to be from a reliable source – in this case a doctor working in Shenzhen Hospital, who was “being transferred to Wuhan to study this pneumonia virus” and “just told us to tell everybody the following information”.

It went on to reveal “the simplest way to identify the difference” between Covid-19 symptoms and non-coronavirus symptoms – but offering advice that is at odds with the latest recommendations from the World Health Organization.

It claimed the virus is not heat-resistant and “will be killed at a temperature of 26-27 degrees” – advising people to drink more hot water and “go in the sun” to prevent it.

sorbetto via Getty Images

As fact-checking website Fullfact, which has investigated similar social media posts, reminds us, there’s a lot we don’t know about Covid-19, including the temperatures it can withstand. This is because it’s still a fairly new virus, so we should be wary of unofficial sources that claim to have specific details.

The World Health Organization says coronaviruses in general can be destroyed at cooking-levels of heat, at around 70°C. Going in the sun is unlikely to protect you from the virus – some of the countries with confirmed coronavirus cases have climates where the temperature is often above 27°C.

The best thing you can do is concentrate on washing your hands thoroughly – the NHS advises using soap and water for at least 20 seconds – be careful with touchscreens, follow self-isolation rules, and take it seriously. Remember, there’s a difference between “keep calm and carry on” and being selfish.

I can well understand the fear so many people are feeling about Covid-19, and the temptation to pass on anything that looks immediately relevant.

“The virus outbreak can breed uncertainty and a sense of threat, so fake news and conspiracy theories can be seen to be a coping mechanism,” chartered psychologist Dr Daniel Jolley told HuffPost UK of coronavirus misinformation.

But if people are given the wrong information, it doesn’t stop the spread of the virus – it might even increase it. Unthinkingly spreading the misinformation – however well-intentioned – can also increases people’s anxiety.

Last week, Manchester Evening News was contacted by a number of parents who had seen articles about an outbreak at their children’s school in Didsbury. The articles turned out to be fake, but parents were left with serious concerns about their children’s safety.

Much like other incidents of scaremongering – such as the Momo hoax in 2019 – it can be hard to distinguish between correct and incorrect advice.

The best thing to do? Use a reliable source of information that isn’t second-hand: the government’s Coronavirus page and the NHS website are both regularly updated.