Amid concerns that WhatApp is being used to spread misinformation around the COVID-19 outbreak, the Facebook-owned messaging giant has launched a new COVID-19 info hub, where users will be able to access timely, accurate information related to the pandemic.
As explained by WhatsApp chief Will Cathcart:
"Today WhatsApp has launched a hub for health workers, educators, small businesses, and others that are using WhatsApp to support one another during this extraordinary crisis. We’re grateful to WHO, UNDP, and UNICEF for coordinating the response to this crisis, including using WhatsApp to do so. Already several ministries of health are providing updates to citizens on WhatsApp and we will expand these services together."
The new info hub, which you can access here, includes tips on working remote, how to find reliable information and how to stop the spread of misinformation, along with specialized insights into how local businesses, health care workers, governments and educators can use WhatsApp to stay connected, and maintain regular activity through the app.
In addition to this, Facebook says that it has almost doubled server capacity for WhatsApp in order to facilitate ongoing communication within the app. WhatsApp has seen big increases in usage in the last week, and is expected to remain a key source of connectivity in many regions as the crisis rolls on across the globe.
But dispelling misinformation, and halting its spread through the app, may be the biggest focus right now.
As noted, reports have emerged over the last week of various COVID-19 misinformation campaigns spreading through WhatsApp. The situation has gotten so bad in some regions, that even Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has issued a call on Twitter for people to stop using unverified chats on WhatsApp for COVID-19 information.
I am urging everyone to please stop sharing unverified info on What's app groups. These messages are scaring and confusing people and causing real damage. Please get your info from official, trusted sources. Follow @HSELive @hpscireland @WHO @merrionstreet @dfatravelwise— Leo Varadkar (@LeoVaradkar) March 16, 2020
Various security experts have warned that, while Facebook is working to address the flow of misinformation in its main app, many bad actors are now turning to WhatsApp instead, and using its more private, intimate, and encrypted messaging to spread false reports. And with 2 billion users, the potential scope and reach of WhatsApp is significant - people may not be able to post to a public News Feed within the messaging app, but it does provide reach to large sections of the community, which can be just as impactful when sharing fake reports.
Further acknowledging this issue, WhatsApp has also donated $1 million to the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) to help expand the presence of local fact-checkers on WhatsApp.
Again, this is a key area of concern, especially as COVID-19 takes hold in more regions where WhatsApp is the preferred method of communication - even the only method of communication in some places. The key to containing and managing the outbreak is ensuring that people are informed as to what they should do, how they should act, and what types of activities they should limit to reduce the risk of infection.
If the efforts to share this information are being undermined, that will only accelerate its spread.
Hopefully these new steps will help to move WhatsApp forward in this respect.