The Covid-19 pandemic is impacting communities around the world. For the 2 billion of those people who also use the encrypted communication service WhatsApp, now more than ever is a time for calling, messaging, and seeking trustworthy information. So the World Health Organization is going where the people are, launching a new tool called WHO Health Alert on WhatsApp today.
When you text “hi” to +41 79 893 1892 over WhatsApp, you’ll receive back a text from the WHO that includes a variety of menu items for the latest information, like novel coronavirus infection rates around the world, travel advisories, and misinformation that should be debunked. Think of it like a hotline: Text 1 for the latest statistics, 4 for mythbusters, that type of thing. The WHO can also send out proactive alerts as needed to everyone who’s signed up.
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The WHO isn’t the first to enlist WhatsApp in this manner. The Facebook-owned app’s ubiquity and experience handling disinformation has made an obvious choice for governments and international organizations, placing it squarely at the center of the novel coronavirus response—with all the responsibility and controversy that entails.
“We already have over one million people signed up even though we haven’t even announced it yet,” says Will Cathcart, who runs WhatsApp, of WHO Health Alert. “It’s great. There seems to be a lot of appetite from people for ways to get good, accurate information and we’re happy to do what we can there to help.”
Helplines are preferable in many ways to landing pages, social media profiles, or massive open channels, because they allow governments to use WhatsApp like regular users, having one-to-one interactions with constituents. The only difference is that the responses are automated.
Organizations can find out their options for setting up similar chatbot mechanisms at this landing page for WhatsApp’s Coronavirus resources. The bots run through WhatsApp’s business application programming interface, which maintains WhatsApp’s encryption and allows entities to manage their services
All the new institutional uses combined with widespread social isolation means that more people than ever are using WhatsApp for messaging—and an especially large volume of phone calls and video chats. To keep up with demand, Cathcart says that WhatsApp has nearly doubled its server capacity in the last few weeks.
“We don’t know what’s coming, and we view WhatsApp as a lifeline for people to communicate when they need it. And the core thing we offer is that it’ll be there and work,” he says. “We’re hearing all these amazing anecdotes especially out of places on the front lines of things like health care workers using WhatsApp to communicate with patients, to communicate with each other. Schools using it to try to do remote education, people using it to keep in touch with their friends and family, either through messaging, but actually exceptionally through video calling and voice calling. And we’re seeing that in the data with a ton of extra usage.”
On a platform that has struggled for years to curb misinformation, all of that extra usage has also bred pandemic-related rumors and myths. WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption means that only the devices at either end of a communication hold data unencrypted. WhatsApp itself is totally boxed out of being able to access user communications other than metadata like which accounts are interacting. This means the company can’t moderate content on the service like social networks can. Users can communicate on WhatsApp without being surveilled by oppressive governments, but those same protections can also make it easier for misinformation to spread. Meanwhile, law enforcement in the US and around the world have increasingly lobbied to undermine end-to-end encryption.
Cathcart says WhatsApp’s priority, even more so during the pandemic, is to elevate accurate information and support fact-checking organizations around the world. The company announced a $1 million donation on Wednesday to the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network. The goal is to help buoy the #CoronaVirusFacts Alliance, which is bringing together 100 local organizations in more than 45 countries to fight Covid-19-related disinformation.
Inside the WhatsApp product itself, the company has made past efforts to limit message forwarding and to label messages that have been forwarded more than five times. The latest version of WhatsApp’s Android beta version, released on Thursday, also includes a new magnifying glass icon on highly forwarded messages that users can tap to be brought to a Google search about claims in the message. After tapping the icon, users must confirm that they want to upload the contents of the message to the search engine, and can decline.
“I think that will be a good step, but I think the limitation there will be only having that feature for the messages that have been forwarded,” says Baybars Örsek, director of the IFCN at Poynter. “Expanding that feature to native messages would also be helpful.”
Örsek adds that misinformation spreads particularly widely on WhatsApp, even with limited forwarding, because the app is designed for one to one communication with friends, family, and colleagues who are often like-minded and already share a baseline of trust. During the pandemic, he says that fact checking organizations have seen a spike in submissions about WhatsApp misinformation. One noteworthy trend has been audio clips claiming to be from nurses, doctors, or other health care providers that seed panic by talking about overwhelmed health care systems or fake lockdowns. Fact-checkers have particularly noticed these recordings circulating in Spain and Colombia. He emphasizes that every region needs its own fact checking groups, because misinformation has a cultural component and varies from country to country.
“I think given the scale of the responsibility that WhatsApp has they will hopefully continue providing input to us and have more features available to users” to help curb the spread of misinformation, Örsek says. But he adds, “End-to-end encryption is worth fighting for. That’s my baseline. It just needs to be handled in a way where while we protect our basic privacy rights we also make sure those rights are not causing harm to others. That’s for me the basic definition of freedom.”
As governments and others adopt WhatsApp for even more sensitive operations during the pandemic—the British army approved it as a platform for official written orders—Cathcart emphasizes that the service’s main goal is simply to offer reliable and secure communication for whoever wants to use it.
“We’re not going to predict what some of these amazing use cases are,” he says. “But if you’re going to send sensitive military information out—that sounds fantastic and helpful. And it also sounds like a wonderful example of something that should be encrypted.”
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- Read all of our coronavirus coverage here