Commentary: Forwarding a WhatsApp message on COVID-19 news? How to make sure you don’t spread misinformation
There are a few ways to spot potential misinformation when you receive forwarded messages, say Edson C Tandoc Jr and Mak Weng Wai.
SINGAPORE: Guess what Singaporeans are sharing on WhatsApp these days?
If you guessed some type of coronavirus-related information, you’re spot on.
But can you guess how many of these were real?
Since late January, after Singapore recorded its first few COVID-19 cases, our research team at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University has been keeping track of messages being forwarded on WhatsApp about the COVID-19 outbreak.
This matters because WhatsApp is the most used messaging app in Singapore. About 84 per cent of the population use it.
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QUITE A BIT OF MISINFORMATION SHARED
Some forwarded messages we collected were forwarded to us by others, while many came from a WhatsApp group that students created where members can seek verification on posts they were unsure about.
The WhatsApp group now has more than 200 members and has received more than 300 posts.
Our analysis involved 153 forwarded messages about COVID-19. Through fact-checking, we found that 35 per cent of these forwarded messages were outrightly false.
An example is a forwarded message that claimed drinking or gargling warm water with salt or vinegar can wash down the coronavirus. The Ministry of Health had specifically debunked this.
Since we were interested in posts that were repeatedly shared, we only analysed messages that carried WhatsApp’s forwarded tag.
WhatsApp installed a forwarded message tag in 2018 to curb the spread of viral falsehoods on its platform. Forwarded messages carry either a single or double arrow to indicate that a message has been forwarded. A double arrow means a message has been forwarded more than five times.
Some 28 per cent of the posts we analysed were accurate, such as screenshots of emails or announcements from malls that informed their tenants they had a suspected case.
Some 20 per cent of the posts mixed true and false information. One post that included a video of a Malaysian student in London recording a message for his parents claimed the student contracted the virus at a party and had died of COVID-19. The video is real, but the student had to clarify in a Facebook post that he is very much alive.
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The remaining 17 per cent of the posts were difficult to verify.
We saw other examples of mixing truths and falsehoods. Some used real photos and videos but misrepresented them.
An example is a screenshot of a list of stringent measures supposedly announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Some users mistook it as a list of restrictions slapped on Singapore, but this turned out to be Australia’s.
While some 37 per cent of the posts we analysed contained explicit references to Singapore, showing the national focus of these forwarded posts, some 25 per cent did not contain any information about geographic location.
The absence of geographic location has facilitated the spread of misinformation across countries. Just think of all the videos you’ve seen of accidents purportedly happening in Singapore that turned out to be events elsewhere.
But this can also be one signal we can use in assessing whether a forwarded post is true or false: We should ask ourselves, where did the event supposedly happen?
Similarly, some 73 per cent of the forwarded posts we examined did not contain any reference to a specific timeframe. A piece of advice, an event, or an announcement is shared with the assumption it was recent but the post is silent on when this happened.
The absence of an explicit timeframe is also facilitating the spread of misinformation across time; this is why we see the same piece of misinformation recur after a few months.
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Some 33 per cent of the posts we analysed also did not mention the source of the information. While misinformation typically refers to a made-up expert or misappropriated names of real people, many of the forwarded posts we came across contained no source.
This raises another question we should ask ourselves when receiving such messages. Should we believe a piece of information whose source we cannot trace or verify?
WHY PEOPLE FORWARD POSTS
Sharing posts has become a form of social exchange: The more we receive posts from others, the more we share, and the cycle continues.
This form of social exchange, using viral posts as currency, has become much easier with messaging apps, such as WhatsApp, which make forwarding posts easy.
This forwarding function, however, has also facilitated the spread of falsehoods, triggering, for example, a series of mob killings in India after angry residents ganged up on some men wrongly accused by viral WhatsApp messages of plotting to kidnap children.
In response, WhatsApp has limited the number of times a message can be forwarded by a user. Earlier this month, WhatsApp rolled out a stricter limit to forwarding by allowing a user to forward a message to only one chat at a time, in a bid to slow down the spread of misinformation about COVID-19.
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WhatsApp also instituted forwarded tags that accompany forwarded messages. These are supposed to alert message recipients that a particular message had been shared many times and most likely was not personally created or verified by the friend who forwarded it.
However, interviews and focus group discussions we have conducted indicate that WhatsApp users understand the forwarded tag in different ways.
For some, a message with a forwarded tag elicits caution and users become more sceptical of the message’s veracity. For others, receiving a message with a forwarded tag means the information is a point of a popular conversation. Others do not remember or do not pay attention to the forwarded tags at all.
TACKLING MISINFORMATION IS LIKE TACKLING A VIRUS
Sharing a post is easy but undoing the effects of misinformation is not.
News outlets, fact-checking sites, and government agencies can issue corrections to debunk a piece of misinformation, but studies have found that corrections are not always effective in correcting misperceptions.
Just like fighting COVID-19’s public health threat, everyone of us must do our part.
In an earlier study, we found most Singaporeans would ignore a piece of misinformation if they come across one, instead of taking proactive measures, such as reporting the post to have it removed or telling the one who posted that the information is false.
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But by not doing anything, we allow the spread of falsehoods.
We should also exercise caution when we share posts on social media or forward on messaging apps.
We should scrutinise a message before forwarding it. We can also search for related information online: Have legitimate information sources, such as news organisations, reported about it?
Online falsehoods work like viruses. They infect one vulnerable host who can then spread them to other hosts.
One user wrongly believing in a falsehood and then sharing it with others, instead of taking steps to verify the information first, is all it takes to start the spread of misinformation.
We share posts for various reasons, from something as simple as wanting to amuse ourselves to something more altruistic such as showing others that we care.
Whatever the reason is, sharing should not be at the expense of misinforming other people, especially at a time like this, when people need accurate information more than ever.
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Edson C Tandoc Jr is an Associate Professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at NTU. This work is part of his Information Integrity Initiative project that focuses on studying information quality during a period of misinformation.
Mak Weng Wai is a final-year student at the School of Humanities at NTU, majoring in History.