Facebook will not adjust Whatsapp features during the Coronavirus outbreak, despite a glut of false information currently circulating and an appeal by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to stop forwarding unfounded rumours of lockdowns and proscribed medications.
The company responded in answer to questions from Independent.ie today.
Whatsapp has been singled out by civic and medical leaders as a platform that is being to spread misinformation and panic around the Covid-19 outbreak.
“I am urging everyone to please stop sharing unverified info on Whatsapp groups,” Taoiseach Leo Varadkar tweeted today. “These messages are scaring and confusing people and causing real damage. Please get your info from official, trusted sources.”
Whatsapp messages are private and encrypted, meaning that Facebook — which owns Whatsapp — cannot see what is being sent.
However, it has previously modified the ‘forward’ feature in response to a public misinformation crisis in India in 2018.
Over the weekend, one mass-circulated Whatsapp message claimed that an Irish hospital was treating young patients for Covid-19 whose symptoms were exacerbated by taking anti-inflammatory drugs. The message was disowned by the hospital and medical authorities.
But the malicious message has spread around Europe, changing hospital names to local cities each time and causing confusion over whether common medications such as Ibuprofen are safe to take.
A separate fake Whatsapp message claimed that army officials were preparing for a street-level lockdown this week.
Asked by Independent.ie about this, a spokesperson for Facebook said that the company will not change WhatsApp’s features in answer to the current Covid-19 crisis.
"WhatsApp is a private messaging service primarily used for real time chats among friends and family,” said a company spokesperson. “We are committed to doing our part to tackle viral messages. Recent product changes include reducing the number of people you can forward a message to just five chats at once and introducing the 'forwarded' and 'highly forwarded' labels to highlight when something has been shared multiple times. We encourage all users to check the facts online before sharing messages that have been forwarded to them, and we encourage users to engage directly with trusted and official sources for important information.”
The company also uses some monitoring technology to prevent WhatsApp from being used to distribute mass or automated messages, although such technology does not intercept Whatsapp messages or see into their content.
It also says that it has ‘advanced machine learning technology’ which identifies and bans accounts engaging in bulk or automated messaging, claiming that it bans two million accounts from WhatsApp per month, 75 percent of them without a recent user report.