Countering lies about Covid-19 is a vital battle

WhatsApp has been used by DHA to negate Covid-19 falsehoods spread on the same platform

A woman wearing a face mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus reads from her mobile phone at a shopping mall in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020. Thursday's new COVID-19 infections made it the second highest increase since the recovery movement control order (MCO) phase began on June 9. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Amid a global pandemic, accurate information is a life or death issue, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres pointed out earlier this year in a warning against misinformation, conspiracy theories, falsehoods and "snake oil solutions". Relying on rumours and unverified claims about how to control the spread of virus that has claimed a million lives goes contrary to the tenet of being responsible and staying safe.

With the proliferation of fake news on the internet – particularly via the messaging platform WhatsApp – the same platform has been used to push back against the swells of unsubstantiated claims.

Back in April, in the still early days of the pandemic, a WhatsApp service was launched by Dubai Health Authority to help people differentiate fact from falsehoods, and to address their concerns about Covid-19. It was as much a social service as a health one, and thousands came to rely on it to investigate the veracity of forwarded messages and popular memes before inundating other people’s inboxes with notifications of dubious origin.

As evidenced by the number of queries handled – nearly 55,000 requests processed in less than six months – the service played a significant role in what has come to be known as "information hygiene" – slowing the spread of misinformation and ensuring that what circulates in the public domain is accurate. It has gone a long way in providing peace of mind to a society grappling on a daily basis with the consequences of the worst health crisis in a century. To reinforce these efforts, the UAE cabinet, also in April, announced that law enforcement would issue fines of up to Dh20,000 for spreading misinformation.

The onus is on each of us to take the trouble to find out where a piece of news originated

The genius of the DHA service, however, is that it is fights misinformation where it occurs – on WhatsApp. This way, those who rely on the messaging platform to learn more about Covid-19 and how to take precautions can find verified, credible information in a place where they are already looking for it.

As we enter the next cycle of the pandemic, we will be well-served to remember to double check the authenticity of the information we receive, whether told to us in person or sent via our screens.

Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and other tech giants are going some way to ensure that their users don't believe rumours, but the onus is on each of us to take the trouble to find out where a piece of news originated, counter unverified claims and to set right the person or people from whom we receive suspicious and unsupported claims.

As can be attested by anyone who has received a notification about, for instance, the efficacy of hot peppers in curing Covid-19 symptoms or the fabricated yarn that 5G and telecommunications infrastructure causes the spread of the virus, misinformation is a malaise that can have dire consequences. The spread of falsehoods cannot be taken lightly, especially when rumours masquerade as health guidelines and what is at stake is, as Mr Guterres says, our lives.