In 2021 you can reach us on WhatsApp
In September 2020 Full Fact launched a pilot WhatsApp service aiming to tackle misinformation on the platform. It’s particularly hard to combat misinformation on a platform like WhatsApp because the network is entirely private and peer-to-peer.
It also has the added complication that most people message their nearest and dearest on the platform, so users are usually starting from a position of high trust with each other. This means that if something is being shared around, for example, by your friends, you are more likely to believe it and forward it on also.
So in September we set up our own WhatsApp number where people could forward us any messages so that we could have a better idea of what was being circulated, and if needed fact check it. That way we can put good information back into the ecosystem. (There's still time to add Full Fact on WhatsApp.)
Over the course of the 3 month pilot, more than 700 people used the service, sending in 1100 messages and over 3000 claims for us to fact check.
The overwhelming majority of claims that we checked have been related to the coronavirus pandemic and the spreading of health misinformation.
Bad information causes real harm. We’ve seen posts that have advised people to inhale very hot steam (please don’t), to not wear a mask because it affects your oxygen levels (it doesn’t), to not observe lockdown regulations because they don’t work (they do) or to not receive a vaccine because of false information about its contents or how it works (it doesn’t change your DNA).
The messages we have been forward have contributed to fact checks on lockdown restrictions, infection and fatality statistics, vaccine ingredients and the accuracy of Covid-19 tests among many others. Posts we likely wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
We heard from many people who were seeing these messages shared on family and friend WhatsApp groups, and from individuals who wanted to make sure they weren’t spreading misinformation themselves.
“I get a lot of fake videos in family groups sent by uncles and aunts, I worry that there is more videos like this being circulated by them”
WhatsApp have applied forwarding limits in order to slow the spread of misinformation, but content that has been given warnings on other social media sites can still circulate on WhatsApp and appear as organic content. This is part of the challenge with all peer-to-peer networks.
We have seen many videos circulating on WhatsApp that have already been flagged and even deleted from Facebook still being shared on WhatsApp with no warnings. A particularly shared example was a video by prominent anti-vaxxer Polly Tommey spreading misinformation about the contents of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine.
We have seen a lot of misinformation presented by ‘citizen journalists’, such as videos of ‘empty hospitals’ or ‘empty testing centres’ filmed on phone cameras and looking as if the video or photo was taken by a friend or family member - but these videos give a false impression of certainty, and are often taken out of context to make a particular point.
So what’s next? Due to the success of the pilot, we will be continuing our WhatsApp service in 2021. We hope that more people will send us messages to check, and that we can protect the many millions of people who are harmed by misinformation each year.