Bree Ali had been biting her tongue for weeks as her WhatsApp lit up with daily notifications from her mother – forwards incorrectly claiming that holding your breath for 10 seconds was a way to screen yourself for the novel coronavirus and that spending 20 minutes in a sauna was a way to kill it. The one that sent her over the edge advised that hot lemon water was not only a cure for the virus, but for cancer, too.
Ms. Ali erupted in a reply, explaining how scientifically unsound this advice was, and suggested her mother analyze what she was reading before forwarding it to others.
With two billion users worldwide, WhatsApp, the social messaging platform owned by Facebook, has been a communication lifeline for families separated by oceans or even just walls during this pandemic. But it’s also been a powerful tool for disseminating pseudoscience, which at best might be harmless but at worst could put lives at risk. And unlike Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, it has no space for others to debunk bogus claims immediately, making it the perfect vehicle for misinformation.
A page on WhatsApp’s website devoted to the coronavirus advises: “Think about the messages that you receive, because not everything you are sent about coronavirus may be accurate. Verify the facts with other trusted official sources or fact checkers. If you aren’t sure something’s true, don’t forward it.”
Many of these messages contain tokens of legitimacy, said Timothy Caulfield, a professor of health law and science policy at the University of Alberta. “They’ll say a prestigious organization – Stanford, Harvard, the World Health Organization, the CDC – and then have an element of secrecy: ‘We’ve got access to this information from this legitimate source.’"
Many mix information embraced by public health officials with pseudoscience, he said.
A popular one that is credited to any number of sources – Britain’s National Health Service, doctors in Wuhan, China, Stanford University’s medical board – claims frequent hand washing can protect people (correct) and that the coronavirus can live on metal surfaces for many hours (also correct). But it also says the virus “dies if it is exposed to temperatures greater than 80°F (27°C)" (incorrect) and that drinking water every 15 minutes will flush it into your stomach where gastric acids destroy it (also incorrect).
“WhatsApp is so instantaneous, and speed is part of its DNA, that I think it invites you to respond quickly and pass it on quickly,” Prof. Caulfield said.
Ms. Ali said that for her mother, who lives in Oakville, Ont., and extended family in Bangladesh, WhatsApp “is their newsfeed.” And for people who grew up around corruption and government mistrust, information from a loved one can be more persuasive than advice from the medical officer of health.
“They got us through a war, they’ve immigrated into countries where they were new to all the cultural norms and they’re sitting here taking these things seriously and it just makes no sense,” Ms. Ali said. “But I guess that’s how they survived and got through things. They listened to their communities.”
Many suggestions align with practices in traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda or other forms of naturopathy, which is why some audiences are not skeptical about them.
Among the most absurd pieces of advice Mirvat Termos received from relatives in Lebanon was to slice an onion into quarters and place the segments in the corners of every room “because that would absorb bacteria and reduce the likelihood that a virus would remain.”
Then she found out her mother had actually done this. When challenged, her mother said it was grounded in traditions she grew up with.
“My mother brings up a lot of practices that were done by my grandma that she feels are actually aiding her in fighting COVID,” Ms. Termos said.
Cosimo Commisso has ignored quackery sent on WhatsApp from his relatives in Canada for years – until the coronavirus outbreak. Now he feels the stakes are too high to remain silent.
Mr. Commisso received one particularly infuriating six-minute video in which someone identified as a doctor suggested blasting heat up your nose with a blowdryer would kill the virus. He scolded the sender, saying a quick Google search would reveal the “doctor” to be a scam artist selling a book.
“We should do a better job in basic science in school. Even to know what a virus is has been a challenge for educated people who are not educated specifically in science," he said.
But verification can be difficult. The RCMP warned last week about sites claiming to be the official homepage of the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Anita Kothari, an assistant professor at Western University’s school of health studies, said little harm can come from following some of the advice for boosting immunity, such as consuming garlic or ginger. However, it should be done in concert with public health officials’ advice: social distancing, washing hands and sanitizing surfaces.
While the originators of viral messages may have questionable or even dangerous intentions, the people passing them on to friends and family often have no ill will, she said.
“I think people are doing this because it’s a way to connect. It’s a way of saying, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about you,’" she said.
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