How Do You Talk to Your Uncle About That Fake WhatsApp Message?

Combatting misinformation about coronavirus can be thought of in a similar way to the test-and-trace plan to stop the spread of the virus itself. Test a claim for accuracy, trace it back to the source, and isolate it to stop it spreading further.

On messaging apps, however, the ‘trace’ element is almost impossible. Memes, posts, videos and audio clips are forwarded to contacts and chat groups with a tap or a swipe and there is no easy way to see how it may have travelled between communities.

The spread of news on these platforms is, therefore, all the more problematic, says Pratik Sinha, editor of Indian fact-checking organisation Alt News. WhatsApp was never meant to be a “broadcast medium,” he said; “it was meant to be a peer-to-peer medium”.

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This makes it all the more important to talk to our contacts, especially those closest to us, about misinformation they might have shared.

All of us have a responsibility for calling out our contacts, especially those closest to us, for spreading a message.

India has a history of violent incidents sparked by rumours or accusations on WhatsApp, which is reportedly used by 400 million citizens across the country. Some 52 percent of Indian respondents surveyed for the 2019 Digital News Report said they get their news from WhatsApp, compared to just four percent in the US.

This makes it all the more important to talk to our contacts, especially those closest to us, about misinformation they might have shared.

So, how do you talk to an uncle who has sent you something false?

Do Your Research

First, you need to ascertain whether the message you have received is false or not. Anyone can crosscheck an image using Google’s image search or TinEye to discover whether the image has been posted earlier.

The contents of text messages should be Googled to see if the same news is reported by major publications, especially those which claim to be from an official government body like the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).

Following established fact-checking organisations like The Quint’s WebQoof, Alt News and BoomLive can also help establish a message’s authenticity. Only then should you talk to your uncle about his message.

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Don’t Shame Your Uncle

The last thing you want to do is turn this into an ugly confrontation, more so if your uncle sent the misleading message on your family’s WhatsApp group.

As Sinha says, “Very often, we end up getting into a conflict situation and then we see that one side doesn't want to listen to the other side.”

Replying to the message and calling it out in public would shame your uncle, making him double down on his views. Instead, a private message focusing on his motivations rather than the content is more likely to work, asking him where he received the message from, whether he knows where it originated, and why he decided to pass it on to you.

Show Empathy

This pandemic has completely turned our lives upside down, creating an uncertainty and anxiety which is not easy to deal with. It is in this climate that your uncle is sharing things with you – not only because he wants to spread a message, but likely because he is afraid. We’re all afraid. Recognise this in your response to him and put yourself in his shoes.

A fake viral message about a vaccine for COVID-19.

In an interview with CBC News, Claire Wardle, co-founder of First Draft and a recognised expert in misinformation, said that reacting emotionally and taking a tone of “you’re wrong and I’m right” does not work. If anything, it strengthens your uncle’s views, and it pushes the two of you further apart. Approaching this with a “we’re all in this together” attitude is far more advisable.

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Be Responsible

As tempting as it is to just ignore the message, this sends the wrong signal – that you accept false or misleading content in your inbox. All of us have a responsibility for calling out our contacts, especially those closest to us, for spreading a message.

In the age of the coronavirus, breaking the chain and discouraging your uncle from sending these any further could be the difference between life and death, as untested cures and remedies are flooding our social media. The last thing you would want is for someone to drink Dettol in the false hope it would kill any virus inside of them.

A viral message with unproven cures for COVID-19.

Platforms have made it extremely easy to forward messages – it only takes two taps to forward a message on WhatsApp – which is why this behaviour has so quickly become part of our digital culture.

The platforms are introducing new measures to prevent the spread of false information, but each of us can play a role in changing this cultural norm by calling it out.

As Claire Wardle told First Draft, there was once a time when you would simply hope for the best when your drunk friend decided to drive home. Now, you take away their car keys and make sure they get back safely with someone else.

Also Read: TikTok Unveils Features to Tackle Its Fake News Problem

Don’t Expect Immediate Change

No one forms or changes their views overnight, so don’t expect your uncle to. The process takes courteousness and patience.

The more you challenge your uncle politely, the more he is eventually likely to think about the things he shares, and to question where they came from.

Speaking up clearly, using concise language and providing a source works, according to a 2016 study into misinformation around the Zika virus research on the 2015-16 Zika virus outbreak by Prof Leticia Bode, of Georgetown University, and Dr Emily K Vraga, of George Mason University.

Misinformation is often spread with an agenda in mind. India is a strong example of this, as misinformation has thrived in India’s WhatsApp groups and messages for several years and could hold lessons on how it can be countered in other parts of the world.

Also Read: Unverified Message Claims Israel Has Found the Cure For COVID-19

Sinha points out that the present situation in India is a product of its polarised politics, and the problem is that it comes from the top – from government officials, political parties, and state apparatus. This makes it all the more difficult to challenge, and thus requires all the more patience.

“It is a long process (to change one’s mind),” he says. This polarisation aims to divide people along certain fault lines; don’t let them create a division between yourself and your uncle.

Misinformation has a very real impact.

False cures, unscientific preventive measures, and conspiracy theories are abound on WhatsApp today amid the pandemic, and all of these have a tangible influence in the real world.

From Indians drinking cow urine to Americans consuming cleaning liquid in the hopes of curing the virus, the misinformation has proved as dangerous and disruptive as the virus itself.

Misinformation has a very real impact.

Breaking that chain of misleading messages on WhatsApp is a small but crucial step you can take in preventing their spread.

(Ali Abbas Ahmadi is a social media journalist at First Draft, a global non-profit organisation, which is working to empower societies with accurate information in critical moments. A version of this article first appeared on the First Draft website.)

(You can read all our coronavirus related fact-checked stories here.)

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