Following on from the launch of its new COVID-19 information hub earlier this week, WhatsApp has also announced the launch of a new chatbot, created in conjunction with the World Health Organization, which will provide access to accurate, timely information on the coronavirus pandemic to the app's 2 billion users.
As explained by WhatsApp:
"The new service, which is free to use, has been designed to answer questions from the public about Coronavirus, and to give prompt, reliable and official information 24 hours a day, worldwide. This will also serve government decision-makers by providing the latest numbers and situation reports."
To use the service, WhatsApp users can save the number (+41 79 893 1892) to their phone contacts, then text the word ‘Hi’ in a WhatsApp message to begin. The bot will then respond via a series of prompts, covering key queries and information - and ideally, dispelling some of the rumors and misinformation around the outbreak which have been spreading via social and messaging apps.
Indeed, various reports have singled out WhatsApp as a key source of such campaigns.
According to a new report in The Guardian, WhatsApp's end-to-end encryption, and massive reach, have made it a tool of choice for many misinformation campaigns, ranging from false "cures" to military intervention to turning an indoor football pitch into a giant oven to cook lasagne for the needy (yes, seriously).
As per The Guardian:
"More traditional social networks such as Facebook and search engines such as Google have made substantial efforts to crack down on coronavirus misinformation, but messages on WhatsApp are encrypted and untraced, which means claims can be viewed by tens of millions of people without being fact-checked by authorities or news organizations. It's relatively easy for a Facebook moderator to remove a public post that breaks the services' rules, but the encryption WhatsApp uses means that no one other than those involved in a conversation can see the material shared and relies on individuals self-policing their conversations."
And again, given WhatsApp's reach, that could be a significant problem - WhatsApp is by far the leading messaging app in many regions, and is particularly popular in developing markets. As such, the ability to access accurate information via the app is essential to limiting COVID-19's spread.
Hopefully this new chatbot will go a way towards dispelling myths and misinformation. WhatsApp is also reportedly in talks with the NHS in the UK on creating a similar chatbot tool, while it's also working with the Singapore Government, The Israel Ministry of Health, the South Africa Department of Health, and KOMINFO Indonesia to help inform citizens in these regions.
The new WHO Health Alert bot is initially launching in English, but will also be available in Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish within the next few weeks.