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The reality of a "misinfodemic" is a well-intended WhatsApp message

As misinformation spreads through WhatsApp, remember journalists will always provide you with more reliable information than a forwarded message from your mum’s friend’s cousin.

Did you hear this week that Prince Philip is dead? That the army was about to shut down London? Or did you hear that four boys in a hospital in Cork are critically ill because they took ibuprofen while they had coronavirus? That you can tell if you have the virus by holding your breath for ten seconds, because that will show whether you have “fibroids” in your lungs? Or that you can kill the virus simply by drinking a lot of water, and that it can’t survive above a temperature of 26 degrees? 

If not, lucky you. I was treated to every single piece of the above misinformation this week, in group chats on WhatsApp. 

We were warned early on in the global coronavirus outbreak that, just as deadly as the spread of the virus itself, there would be a spread of viral misinformation. The government would face an uphill struggle to maintain public trust and to ensure its own clear, authoritative guidance would cut across the noise as panic grew and demand soared for ever-faster information. As the (now somewhat-maligned) behavioural scientists advising the government blogged in late February, alongside and intrinsic to fighting the pandemic would be the fight against the “misinfodemic”. 

What I hadn’t anticipated, or given much thought to, was what that might look like. Insofar as I had considered it, I was probably anticipating disinformation: that is, false information proliferated deliberately to deceive, perhaps on nefarious fake news websites. I hadn’t reckoned with the reality of a “misinfodemic”: not dis but misinformation, the spread of false information, whether it is intended to deceive or not. 

Who knew that the reality of a “misinfodemic” would be well-intentioned friends and family members sharing messages on WhatsApp? The messages invariably begin: “My [insert friend/family member]’s [insert friend/family member] works in [insert a huge institution involved in the coronavirus response] and they say…”? And in some cases, accompanied by a sceptical proviso: “Probably b******s but worth sharing just in case xxx”?

A “misinfodemic” is so called specifically to capture the role that misinformation plays in a pandemic: the spread of false information, even without malicious intent, worsens the impact of the pandemic by causing confusion, interfering with efforts to contain its spread, or by producing knock-on effects such as increasing levels of hate crime or of burdening the health service with people are convinced they have the virus when they don’t. It isn’t about combatting wrong information for the sake of it: combatting large-scale misinformation saves lives.

The common format of a piece of misinformation – “my friend’s cousin is senior at the Ministry of Defence and he says…” – displays an intrinsic understanding of the journalistic principle of sourcing: finding someone you know and trust who is well-placed to know the information that you need. People want to be inside organisations at this time, to be as close to the decision-makers as possible, so suddenly this sort of information feels more to-the-minute, more accurate, than what people seem to see as the staid content of a news website or a press conference.

But where this instinctive drive for up-to-the-minute, insider information is lacking is the realisation that journalists are already providing that, and they are doing it far better than your mate’s cousin can. 

You may have a message from a friend of a friend who is "high up in the army" and who “knows” about a lockdown, but a good hypothetical journalist will have access to several people in Number 10, several in the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Health, the Mayor of London’s team, a minister in the Home Office, and, yes, maybe a couple of senior people in the army. 

Where a forwarded WhatsApp may claim to share information from a well-placed single source, it’s worth remembering that a journalist is doing that several times over, with more sources, better sources, sources who have been reliable in the past, with the necessary fact-checking. They have been doing exactly that for years, and they get paid to do it well and to share it with you. 

There’s a greater moral imperative on a journalist’s sources to be accurate, unlike your friend's friend who will have no moral compunctions about slightly dramatising and embellishing something for a WhatsApp chat. And that’s assuming the originator of the message is even known to whoever has passed it on: typically messages like these are forwarded on, so the “friend of a friend” is unknown to the person sending you the message.

Here’s another way of looking at it: the journalist and comedian Matt Ford joked on Twitter recently that suddenly, in the middle of a pandemic, all of his friends have senior sources at the heart of government, and they have all decided to leak to their mates at precisely this moment of crisis. A truly remarkable coincidence. 

The people who are sharing misinformation do so, in most cases, out of love. It’s a genuine attempt to be helpful, to exert some control over a situation that is leaving people feeling powerless, to let people you love know what is going on and what they can do to protect themselves, especially as the government’s communications efforts falter and confuse some people, with continuous escalations looking like U-turns. 

But the simple response to our insatiable drive for information is to feed it with simply better information. The government is clearly not where it needs to be in terms of communciating clearly with the public, but it remains the case that on Friday morning, for example, as rumours of a “lockdown” in London went into overdrive, the best information was that in newspaper reports: not just the headlines, but the actual body of the articles. And as the day unfolded, the up-to-the-minute information was not on WhatsApp, but on Sky News, exemplified by a report like this from Sam Coates, their deputy political editor. 

As we do our bit to contain the virus and protect our most vulnerable by ending all non-essential social contact, we can also do our bit to contain the spread of viral misinformation. Beware the WhatsApp message that begins: “Ok this is serious: my friend’s sister is senior in the civil service and she says...” Look to the very best political, health, science and defence journalists in print, broadcasting and online. Read what they write, follow them on Twitter. Look up a reliable fact check service when you receive information that isn’t from a reliable news source. This is a great example from the BBC on the ibuprofen scare that has been circulating.

There are professionals who spend their days being paid to find and verify up-to-date information for you. They will always provide you with more reliable information than a forwarded WhatsApp from your mum’s friend’s cousin. 

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman