How To Stir Confusion Amidst a Pandemic: COVID-19 and Misinformation on WhatsApp

Like participants in the party game, truth or dare, members of large WhatsApp groups express a limited number of truths, but are dared to consume or refute massive volumes of misinformation. 

Observers are concerned about the spread of misinformation about Coronavirus (COVID-19) on digital social media platforms. Some describe it as a “crisis of public misunderstanding”  shaped by Western digital corporations and social media platforms (Ali and Kurasawa 2020). The director general of the World Health Organization (WHO) has termed the phenomena the “coronavirus infodemic” (Ali and Kurasawa 2020).[1] The deluge of misinformation is spreading faster than the virus itself. This affects the efforts to contain the epidemic. More worryingly, it appears to be “driving division” instead of promoting “solidarity and collaboration” (Ghebreyesus and Ng 2020).[2] While the WHO, fact checkers and journalists are working hard to counter this tide, their efforts at containing the “infodemic” face insurmountable odds. Social media misinformation may be eroding democratic processes endangering efforts to protect people and save lives. 

COVID-19 has decimated lives, derailed economies and displaced millions in India. As images of poor migrant workers bereft of support, and the ticking counter of confirmed cases–recoveries–deaths, beam across multiple media, a different crisis is unfolding. A panic-stricken middle-class, relatively secure and resolutely socially-distanced, are exchanging, discussing, confirming, refuting and acting on vast amounts of rumours about the coronavirus, in their circles of trust. 

In this article, I examine some of the typical misinformation that has been shared on large WhatsApp groups, which include falsified facts, xenophobia, miracle cures, dangerous medical advice, false or re-edited government notifications, and threats of violence through video clips.[3] As people seek protection and assurance, this confusing mess of misleading information in March competes with public health facts, authentic news, genuine government notifications, and community support initiatives. The misinformation spread through WhatsApp forwards not only stirs up emotion but also shapes opinions about the causes, responses and solutions to this crisis. 

Rumours are described as collective expressions that develop in closed networks where members share pre-existing beliefs and prejudices (Coast and Fox 2015: 226). An important function of rumours is the attribution of responsibility for misfortunes and unnatural events (Stewart and Strathern 2004). Rumour-like communication, known as misinformation, disinformation or propaganda, involves sharing false, inaccurate and malicious information online (Ross and Rivers 2018: 3). A disturbing trend in social media is xenophobic forwards around coronavirus that promote surveillance, hyper-nationalism, obedience and punitive action. Xenophobic sentiments associated with epidemics have a long history. Medical sociologist, A R White (2020), describes the attacks on Asians in the aftermath of COVID-19 as similar to the aggressive scrutiny faced by the colonised population that followed epidemics in the past. Even as the pandemic spreads, White argues, it is important to ask, “who our responses are designed to protect and who are they meant to villify?”  While social media is a democratic space, spreading  manipulative messaging reduces it to a world where disagreements are seen as enmity, personal certainties are confirmed and the wrongs done by “Others” are reiterated (Ellul 1973:213-14). 

“A Foreign Virus”—What is Happening? 

Coronavirus related stories started doing the rounds of large city WhatsApp groups in the first week of March. One of the earliest was the “Wuhan-virus” conspiracy story, circulated in a Mumbai cab driver WhatsApp group on 12 March, long after fact checkers had dismissed it.[4] The WhatsApp groups in Mumbai found it immediately after the WHO re-designated COVID-19 as a pandemic on 11 March, and the positive cases had crossed 100,000.[5] 

This forward was in Hindi and read as follows:

‘There is a book with the name (eyes of darkness) published in (1981). It is written here that the corona virus was made by China in the city of Wuhan in a lab, hidden from everyone. Later China was supposed to use this to reduce the population of the poor people in their country, so that it is easier for them to become a superpower. In this book the virus is called Wuhan 400. The book had predicted that in future China would use this virus as a biological weapon. The writer’s name is (Dean Koontz). Pages of the book 353-356.’ (Trans. from Hindi, the words in brackets were in English)[6]

The people reading and forwarding it were convinced it was true because it was written in a published book in English that accompanied the post. They were also willing to believe this because of other China-related prejudice, and misinformation, that they were consuming. A popular one was about their cultural and food practices. According to one consumer of this information, the Chinese ate bats and snakes, and are therefore liable to suffer from such infections. But was it fair, they said, that China should spread it to the rest of the world? My saying that some communities in India also consumed bats was dismissed as a story! Interestingly, the point that they wished to discuss was whether it was legitimate for governments to have such powers that they can harm their own people and get away with it? Did the lives of poor people have no value for them? On my saying that there was no evidence that any government would do so and the China story was an internet hoax, they were less willing to believe me. 

Mostly, group members had insisted that the event had been predicted in a “real book,” and real people were dying of coronavirus all over the world. Mumbai cab drivers were not interested in the finer details because what was convincing for them was that thousands were sharing this story. The forward affirmed the general prejudice that all foreigners who consumed forbidden types of animals deserved to be infected. Soon after this, these groups received forwards from Twitter hashtags listing cases and fatalities from all over the world, asking them to be responsible citizens and stay at home for one month. From a danger of foreign origin, it quickly transformed to a personal threat. 

Social Distancing and National Pride—Who Caused It?

On 22 March, Indian citizens were asked to maintain a “Janata Curfew” and two days later, a 21-day nationwide lockdown was declared to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. During this period, a number of WhatsApp forwards spread a new crop of China stories to amplify “social distancing,” and infuse it with national pride. A forward (193 words), titled “The Italy-Wuhan Connection” spread the message of social distancing based on misleading and malicious claims on 22 March. It argued that the reason why Italy is suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic was that they failed to maintain “distance” from thousands of immigrant Chinese textile workers living in Northern Italy, many of whom were from Wuhan. The Italian authorities were foolish to advocate friendship and harmony among the hosts and immigrant communities through a “Hug a Chinese” campaign. 

The broader message advocates racial bias for self-preservation. This forward originated on an individual’s Twitter handle, a few Facebook pages, Reddit and some conservative far-right American blogs. These blogs blame trade relations between Italy and China, the faulty policies of liberal and left parties in Italy, “stupid liberal views” and social justice advocacy as the cause of high corona fatalities in Italy.[7] Asian-origin people, including students and tourists, faced waves of xenophobia in Italy and other European countries following the coronavirus outbreak.[8] 

Another forward (241 words) on 24 March was titled, “How to dominate the world quickly?” This message reinforced the much-discredited hoax that the coronavirus pandemic was a biowarfare weapon that China unleashed to displace America as the global superpower. This content was simultaneously circulating in obscure websites describing an “anonymous professional network,” a pro-Donald Trump website, football groups in the United Kingdom and individual Facebook pages. Some who received this forward on WhatsApp went on to Reddit and posted detailed “comments of approval” that got upvoted by 76%.[9]  Like the early Internet hoax related to the Dean Koontz book, this forward mentions a book title and uses this to claim authenticity of the information. 

‘PS: Before laughing, read the book by Chinese colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, from 1999, “Unrestricted Warfare: China’s master plan to destroy America”, on Amazon, then we talk. It's all there.’ (excerpt from the post)

These narratives are trying to create plausible accountability for the pandemic induced economic and public health crisis by confirming people’s pre-existing biases. But beliefs such as these are antithetical to a foundation based on global cooperation, which is required for fighting the pandemic. Such beliefs are likely to fuel insularity and isolation. Around 50,000 Indian citizens lived and worked in China in 2019. Linking diseases with xenophobia and fear of foreigners enable shaping perception and shifting accountability to distant “others” for many types of crises beyond the coronavirus pandemic. 

An interesting WhatsApp forward (642 words) shared on 24 March makes a more direct though obscure connection with India. Presented as a review of a Netflix mini series “Tokyo Trials,” the post was titled “unsung hero-honoured in Japan” and ends with the following sentences:

‘Dr. Radha Binod Pal (27 January 1886 - 10 January 1967) name is remembered in the history of Japan…Because of his judgment on Japanese war criminals, Chinese people hate him.’ 

This content can be found in several online blogs dating from early January 2020.[10] In February 2020, a research paper on this subject was published in a conservative security think tank website in Estonia.[11] Apart from the fact that the Yasukuni shrine, where the Indian judge is memorialised, is a centre of political tension between Japan, South Korea, and China, what could be relevant about this slightly obscure story during the COVID-19 pandemic? The post details the humble origins of the judge in a Bengal village, and his rise to a position of prominence and how India was a land of heroes, often forgotten by its own people. Possibly meant as an inspirational story, to arouse nationalist feelings, and war, and suggesting that those who maintained social distance and self-isolation were similarly heroic in facing a war-like situation and would receive just rewards in time. The malicious note about Chinese hatred towards an Indian patriot linked it to other blame stories about China.[12] 

Internal “Others”—Who Else Could be Responsible?

A video clip circulated on WhatsApp groups on 26 March described itself as an “Agripada event.” In the video clip, the police are threatening a woman in a niqab, presumably for travelling during the lockdown. The person circulating the clip added their own interpretation as an example of how harsh action needs to be taken against some people. The 2 minutes 23 seconds clip shows a narrow street where a woman carrying a baby and a man on a bike is stopped by two policemen who are speaking to them (the audio is unclear). A car stops, and another man gets out and also tries to speak to the group. Finally, the police drag away the biker and beat him with sticks. A group of men then emerge and appear to speak to the policeman, and they try to stop the policeman from beating up the biker. On 30 March, this video was posted on Youtube under the title: “Police in Mumbai Harassed.”[13] The shared video came with the comment: “these people will never learn. It's time for some strict measure.”

Others countered by saying that the woman appears to be saying that her mother was ill, and the man was saying that just because there is a bandh, you cannot beat me. In Mumbai, it was the police who were cautioned by the state government to not use high-handed methods to enforce the corona lockdown.[14] 

On 26 March, another video forward posted on WhatsApp showed policemen wearing masks beating up Muslim men as they came out of an arched doorway. The place, date, and context are not specified. The top half of the building is not shown in the clip, so that only windows and doors are visible. Outside the doorway, there were shoes. Accompanying the video clip was a couplet in Hindi–Urdu, which went as follows:

“Rindo ki nazar me maikhana kabe ke barabar hota hai. Saki tere galika har fera to haj ke barabar hota hai.”

(For the lover of alcohol, a drinking place is holy. Each walk down your corridor is like a pilgrimage.) (My translation) 

While the couplet can be easily found on the internet, the connection with the visual does seem to suggest that the men had been out drinking alcohol during the coronavirus curfew, since for them alcohol was like religion, prayer, or pilgrimage. But the place is clearly a mosque, though the minarets are not shown in the visuals. This 30-second video has a disturbing soundtrack of sticks beating men, and serves to support the distorted and misleading message of Muslim irresponsibility, and lawlessness, and the need for punitive action. 

Such narratives and surrounding debates are trending on Indian Twitter in March [15], following news reports that a mosque event in New Delhi led to COVID-19 positives among those who had attended the programme. While questions about why, and how, large gatherings took place after the announcement of lockdown is pertinent, already circulating misinformation shows that reasonable debate on this subject will have to compete with uninformed bias. Coronavirus response requires solidarity, and should not be used to reinforce communal tension.  
 

Warnings and Advisories—Staying Safe is Your Responsibility 

On 14 March, experts at the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) discussed the possible pattern of community transmission of  COVID-19. Mainstream media widely quoted this expert who said that COVID-19 in India was at the Stage-2 level when the transmission was local, in Stage 3, community transmission would take place, and at Stage 4, an epidemic situation would prevail. The expert went on to advise the critical need to take precautions at this stage to contain the spread. [16] On 15 March, a viral WhatsApp forward-tilted, “Corona virus cases….” declared that India was in stage 3 of the disease. This forward provided lists of cases and its alarming growth under the headings “wk1, wk2 and wk3,” from New York, France, Iran, Italy, Spain and India, warning readers to take precautions at home, and outside as “responsible citizens.” It also praised “India” for doing well in its fight against corona, suggesting that the fewer positive cases was due to active intervention, and not inadequate testing. No specific suggestion was made as to what these precautions should be.   

On 18 March, a false advisory from “Indian Medical Association” asked housing society members to report people with recent travel history outside India to a list of countries: “China/South Korea/Iran/Italy/France/Germany/Spain/USA/etc.” The notice titled: “Announcement for committee members of all Cooperative Housing Societies” went on to say that, on calling on the given mobile numbers, home visits of officials would be arranged, ‘testing’ would be provided and quarantine would be ensured if required. The information provided in the WhatsApp forward, such as names of doctors were false and the “helpline numbers” were invalid. 

Other messages in the garb of official advisories urged housing societies to search for, and maintain lists of recent travellers. The list of countries provided in the ‘announcement’ was incomplete as compared to the COVID-19 visa and travel restriction advisory of the Government of India, which became effective from 18 March.[17] But after receiving this message, some housing societies asked their residents to provide information about recent travel outside India.  Elsewhere in the country, lists of people who were under quarantine, or who had tested positive made the rounds on WhatsApp, creating serious potential for violence. [18] On the same date, several emotional “doctor-forwards” were shared to reinforce the message of “social distancing” and to act as “responsible citizens” by restricting their movement. 

‘We will continue to fight for the community no matter what but please don’t make us feel like idiots by being irresponsible citizens and continue to ignore the messages to do social distancing - Dr Seema’ (excerpt from a WhatsApp forward on 18.3.20)

The same content, slightly modified, was posted by a municipal corporator on their personal Facebook page on 23 March. While these can be described as warning communication, spreading the correct message in the context of COVID-19 community transmission, they claimed official authority and offered little beyond social shaming and advising them self-regulation. 

A disturbing video on 22 March was titled: “Defence minister of Israel... on how to tackle the virus.” Based on dubious data, the speaker in the video suggests that the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 was to separate the young people from the elderly. [19] Clearly, the absence of clear directions and excessive junk information enables the conflation of epidemic emergencies with security, military, conflict and war. The term social distancing is defined in epidemic control manuals as: “staying at a distance from sick people (at least 1.5 metres) in order to prevent the spread of disease (IFRC 2008, p 89).” In Influenza epidemics, people must stay away from those who are infected, as a precaution against falling sick and spreading the infection to others. The preventive campaign in face of the COVID-19 pandemic, as translated through WhatsApp junk communication adds undesirable layers of meaning to “social-distancing” than what is intended by disaster responders, and medical experts. 

Some hoax messages spread unnecessary alarm. A message in Marathi warned women against cooking on LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) gas stoves immediately after using alcohol-based hand sanitiser as they could catch fire. 

‘All women who work do any work on gas, do not go near the flames after applying hand sanitizer. This is because sanitizers have alcohol that can catch fire. Stay safe.’ (translated. Excerpt from the forward)

This was spreading at a time when public messages to guard against COVID-19 were amplifying hand washing and sanitising and hand sanitisers and disinfectants were rapidly disappearing from supermarkets and pharmacies. The message could cause serious harm if people stopped using sanitisers. But a far more disturbing thought is whether this was indirect or manipulative messaging to reduce demand for sanitisers when the supplies were running out. Another forward (in Hindi), sent on 21 March, pointed out that unless the protective masks used by people were burnt and buried, animals may eat them and in future, this would cause another devastating epidemic in the country. The forward ends with the request to be shared widely, and can be found in several Facebook pages and on Youtube. One can only hope that people would not act on such warnings.   

With the official announcement of lockdown in the address by the Prime Minister on 24 March, neighbourhood WhatsApp groups went on overdrive about advisories. One of these, with the title: “Important # Instructions For Next #21 Days” was shared on 25 March, on a building society group in Mumbai. The material was sourced from a Facebook post from a site called: “Batote News 24X7.” The Facebook site misleadingly describes itself as: “THIS IS OFFICIAL PAGE OF Batote.” The use of the term “official” is highly misleading since this is not a site authorised by any government institution. Batote is a municipality in the district of Ramban in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. The official website of the district has an advisory called “Appeal to General Public regarding Corona Virus” with very different content and concern. [20] Some of the points in the “advisory” are absurd, such as always wearing the same clothes when going out. Other suggestions are unusual such as asking people to avoid using their mobile phones as they can catch the infection. 

People who share such forwards in large public groups believe that they are doing their bit to keep their community safe, complying with the government, and being responsible citizens by circulating information that is “official” or related to authorities or public bodies. However official advisories are shared less, as people seem to draw upon information that they think is relevant, and information that appeals to their beliefs and context. While this is a benign practice among social media users in normal times, during a serious crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, it appears to crowd the narrative and distort messages from informed authorities. The use of the term “official” is unethical, and used to increase its powers of persuasion and acceptance. 

Home Remedies, Miracle Cures, Prescription Medicines—What will Cure COVID-19?

A viral meme on Twitter in the shape of a glowing blue man with green stuff on his throat has been widely discredited by newspapers all over the world.[21] On 26 March, an audio clip in Hindi (3:44 minutes) was circulated on WhatsApp. This is an audio rendition of the text on the meme with some additional details. Here, the speaker claims to have friends in Wuhan, China and describes how his knowledge comes from the post mortem performed on those who have died of coronavirus. The voice also claims that the Chinese have found this cure and thereby have been able to reduce the number of deaths. 

“So the thing I am about to tell you is very important. (First of all) I have received this (information) from my Chinese friend who is my business partner who lives in Whuangang city which is very close to Wuhan. You know that, right now they have removed the lockdown from China. What has really happened is that, all the (dead bodies) that they had, they performed postmortem on them. And they have found out what actually was the (cause) of (death). Thus they knew how to control the deaths. That’s how they were able to remove the lockdown…. (Firstly), all these (deaths) are happening because of (respiratory problems). What happens here is that the infection which is in the form of a (thick mucus), clogs your throat. And because of this all the airways, nasal chamber, basically your (respiratory system) is blocked from receiving air. This thick mucus does not allow oxygen to enter inside. That is when people need ventilators. The point is how do we control this. The first thing is that the thick mucus stays in the throat for three days before it reaches the lungs. Now, if you neutralise it there itself, then, there won’t be any deaths. The important point that I am telling you is how you can (neutralize) this mucus. (First of all), please drink (hot liquids regularly). For example, tea, coffee, hot water, turmeric with hot water. Drink hot water as regularly as you can. What will happen then is that the thick mucus that is clogging your throat will reach your stomach. In your stomach you have (gastric juices). These (juices) will neutralize the mucus… Don’t think this is a rubbish forward. (Actually) these are (proven) facts that we have got from China. So please share this.” (Excerpt from the audio clip, translated and transcribed by author) 

The point of this story is reassurance, that everyone will eventually come out of lockdown, and there is no need to be afraid as people can be protected and cured of COVID-19  easily. Since hospital beds and ventilators were in short supply, people could protect themselves with simple, at home, low-cost remedies. Everything was thus under control.

A similar message in Bengali asks people to drink tea thrice a day to avoid getting infected. The WhatsApp forward that travelled through a friends’ group from Dubai, to Delhi, to Mumbai on 27 March. The message claimed to provide a coronavirus remedy based on news reported in the “famous American news channel, CNN.”

‘….the research conducted by Dr.Li Wenliang, before he died, that 3 chemicals Methylxanthine, Theobromine and Theophylline can kill the corona virus, and that these three chemicals are found in tea. Thus, if people drink three cups of tea a day, they do not have the risk of infection by coronavirus and even if they get infected, they will get better in a few days. This is absolutely true, as you can see in the case histories and documentaries prepared by Dr.Li Wen Liang. Unfortunately, Dr. Li Wenliang was punished by the Chinese Government and died of the coronavirus disease. But in Wuhan coronavirus affected patients are made to drink tea three times a day and they are now cured.’ (Excerpt from the forward. Translated from Bengali)

Fact checkers in East Africa and India have described the above claim as an Internet hoax circulating on Facebook on 25 and 26 March.[22] CNN had only reported the death of Dr Li Wenliang. At present, there are no medical cures for the novel coronavirus and there is no evidence that drinking tea can cure it. 

A far more dangerous forward on 29 March, raised a scare about a common fever medicine Ibuprofen, and hypertension medicine based on ACE (Angiotensin converting enzyme) inhibitors. This forward that claimed to be based on a Lancet article provoked panicked responses from WhatsApp group members, who worried about the health of friends and family members and how they could switch from prescription medicine at a time when it was difficult to access doctors and drug supplies were affected. 

“The Lancet today: 2 drugs to be avoided: Ibuprofen and ACE inhibitors. So if anybody out of you/ your relatives are on ACE inhibitors for treatment of HT, urgently switch to Calcium channel blockers. Logic: SARS-Cov 2 ie COVID 19 acts through ACE2. Ibuprofen and Sartans both upregulate the ACE2 Receptors, thus help the virus to amplify.” (WhatsApp forward)

The same content is also found in several Facebook pages that quote an article published by Fang et al 2020 in the Lancet.[23]  In this case the article by Fang et al does advocate a possible connection between patients treated with ACE2 inhibitor drugs and COVID-19 and suggests a change of treatment. 

“We therefore hypothesise that diabetes and hypertension treatment with ACE2-stimulating drugs increases the risk of developing severe and fatal COVID-19.” (Fang et al 2020)

A counterargument in a second Lancet article, published on 26 March, discusses the problematic effect on people who, after reading the above, wished to switch to alternate drugs, or discontinue treatment without consulting medical professionals. This article states that while the association between ACE-2 and COVID-19 is not understood completely, public circulation of the Fang et al hypothesis has created great uncertainty (Brown 2020). The WhatsApp forward also mentions a connection between Ibuprofen and COVID-19. This is based on a separate set of misinformation around COVID-19 on the Internet (see Harrison 2020 on Ibuprofen and COVID-19 rumours).  

While the tea-drinking and gargling stories based on false claims serve to reassure those who are anxious about their health, and the duration of the lockdown, the confusion around prescription medicine for other diseases could cause great harm, if affected people chose to act on it. The ACE-2 forward shows the dangers of people interpreting evolving medical research, creating misguided information, and persuading others to act on. The scarcity of professional medical support, or the  lack of trust in public health systems means that people are vulnerable to such suggestions. In the Indian WhatsApp groups, several false lists of doctor’s names and phone numbers are being circulated periodically as “official lists” for COVID-19 care. These are then being refuted by others, reinforcing confusion, anxiety and feelings of being unsupported. 

Obscuring Dissemination of Authentic Public Health Information—Who Do We Believe?

Four types of novel coronavirus stories that circulated in WhatsApp groups have been discussed in this article. All the forwards originated in or simultaneously appeared on Twitter and Facebook, and drew on content from numerous online blogs and news sites.[24] The forwards are grouped in categories that can be broadly classified as responses to typical concerns that people may have because of the unprecedented disruption of their lives. What is happening? What has caused this? What can we do to protect ourselves? Fourth, how long will this last? Can this problem be solved? While these are logical concerns under the circumstances, WhatsApp misinformation not only crowds authentic public health and epidemic-response communication, but also uses the panic situation to plant motivated and ideological messages to shift accountability, and deflect criticism. 

Like participants in the party game, truth or dare, members of large WhatsApp groups express a limited number of truths but are dared to consume or refute massive volumes of misinformation. The penalty for not participating could be many: from loss of information, offline social disapproval, to exclusion from cooperative support, and supply loops under lockdown. COVID-19 misinformation also has the potential to damage societal resilience and democratic processes in unpredictable ways. A continuous refrain about China, for example, shifts the responsibility of government inaction or un-preparedness elsewhere. Emphasis on individual or personal responsibility shifts attention from the unavailability of adequate social welfare and healthcare support. Excessive amplification of social-distancing, even when millions lack the resources and means to do so, promotes selfishness and reduces solidarity.[25] Rousing calls for compliance, obedience, neighbourhood surveillance and punitive action, beyond the scope of epidemic control creates justification for authoritarianism.  

WhatsApp groups are also engaged in creative expression, valuable services and cooperative activities that are essential for co-existence when there is such a lockdown in place. Many are circulating e-newspapers and updates from authorised institutions like schools, municipalities, state governments, health ministries and the WHO. There is growing awareness about “forwarded” content. That said, COVID-19 misinformation on WhatsApp constitutes to be a serious problem adding to chaos and panic. External restriction from Facebook, only with respect to forwards or putting a price on sending forwards to large groups may help to address the issue. However, state regulation on social media is not appropriate as free speech is an absolute necessity in times of a pandemic lockdown. 

 

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