Kinza Chaudhry cringes when she gets a WhatsApp message full of forwarded health advice from a family friend or distant cousin. It might be a message about treating diabetes or thyroid disease or advice about what foods constitute healthy eating.
Chaudhry, 33, who is a registered dietitian in Washington, D.C., is concerned that health misinformation shared on messaging platforms like WhatsApp are often not backed by science.
“These generalized chain messages are spreading a lot of misinformation. I don’t know if any of this data is ever being tracked and if people are going to the hospital,” because they followed faulty information, Chaudhry told the PBS NewsHour.
Chaudhry is among the more than two billion WhatsApp users around the world who use the private messaging service to connect with family and friends. The services are a free connection for everyone, but for millions in diaspora communities across the United States, they are also a lifeline to home countries. Calls that used to cost dollars per minute are now free texts sent across thousands of miles. But they can also be a source of misinformation–some of it dangerous.
As the U.S. was consumed with political disinformation surrounding the U.S. presidential election, largely on Facebook, the rest of the world was dealing with science and health news misinformation on messaging apps, said Claire Wardle, of First Draft News, a nonprofit dedicated to tackling misinformation,
And while social media giants like Facebook and Twitter have come under intense scrutiny for hosting misinformation, private messaging services like Telegram, South Korea’s Kakao, the China-based WeChat and the largest–WhatsApp–have been more difficult to monitor because they host private, sometimes encrypted, chats between individuals or small groups–sheltered from the eyes of fact-checkers and watchdogs. Often, that privacy is what brings people to these types of messaging apps. Though out of view, chats can include the spread of misinformation about health and politics both in the United States and abroad.
The nearly one-in-five American adults who get their news primarily from social media sources are more likely to have heard about false or unproven claims than those who get their news from other sources, according to a 2020 analysis by the Pew Research Center. They’re also less concerned about the dangers and consequences of made-up news, the analysis said. These concerns are only compounded when the messaging is taking place on platforms where the conversations are more protected, such as on apps like WhatsApp.
“Messaging apps, they’re essentially the same as me having a conversation around the dinner table…they are encrypted so even the platforms themselves don’t know what’s being shared,” Wardle said.
How misinformation has molded reality
Twenty-eight year-old Faris Ibrahim’s mom forwards messages to his Sudanese family’s WhatsApp group everyday. He’s seen everything from graphics of vegetables that allegedly cure cancer to home remedies that will prevent you from catching the coronavirus.
“Whenever I get something on WhatsApp or hear something ridiculous, instead of saying’ ‘fake news’ we now call it ‘WhatsApp news,’” said Ibrahim, who lives in D.C.
Ibrahim believes there is a “WhatsApp culture,” one that’s prevalent among older generations in diaspora communities like his own because it’s information being shared by loved ones, friends and people from one’s own community–all on the platform where they all exist.
“Now my generation sees everything on WhatsApp like it’s fake, even if it’s a real article shared on WhatsApp, we have so much speculation compared to our parents who are like ‘oh this is definitely real because it came from your auntie or lady from the mosque, there’s that trust and credibility there,” Ibrahim said.
Stephanie Hankey, co-founder and executive director of the Tactical Technology Collective aimed at studying the intersection of tech and culture, said that a sense of trust is what makes information sharing on encrypted messaging apps, or EMAs, different from open platforms.
“With WhatsApp, you’re usually getting messages from people you know that you’re somehow connected to, the level of trust is much higher so it makes a difference in how that information moves,” Hankey said.
Ibrahim’s family often sends political updates about the military coup in Sudan, home to his extended family. Back during the revolution in 2019, his parents relied heavily on WhatsApp to make sure their family in Sudan were safe. But it was hard to know whether other information being forwarded among the Sudanese diaspora, such as videos and images of death and violence, were accurate.
“You don’t know if what you’re seeing is real. I know a lot of the images we later found out were from years before the revolution or took place in another country, or in another context,” Ibrahim said.
Diasporic communities who leave their home countries–whether for economic, cultural or political reasons–often have a snapshot-in-time understanding of that birthplace, which could influence what they share, explains Dwaine Plaza, a sociology professor at Oregon State University who studies transnational families and social media.