Fake virus info spreads on messaging apps

Taylor Thompson-Fuller

Hoaxes and misinformation about COVID-19 are continuing to circulate in private chat groups despite already being debunked on public Facebook pages.

AAP FactCheck, the fact-checking division of Australian Associated Press, has been forwarded a number of fake and unsubstantiated claims on the private messaging app Facebook Messenger.

A message circulated on March 25 repeats a series of claims, including that the virus "hates heat" and will die if exposed to temperatures over 27 degrees, and that sipping water will prevent infection by keeping your throat moist and washing the virus into the stomach.

The same claim about sipping water is repeated in a hoax message purporting to be advice to staff at a UK hospital about COVID-19 that was circulated in a Sydney WhatsApp group on March 25.

The claims were checked and debunked by AAP FactCheck in articles published on March 13 and March 18.

Australian National University infectious diseases physician Professor Peter Collignon told AAP FactCheck temperatures of 26 to 27 degrees Celsius won't kill the virus.

And UNSW virologist and molecular biologist Professor William Rawlinson told AAP FactCheck that COVID-19 particles are "too small to wash away" by drinking water, while infection can occur through the eyes, nose and throat.

The same claims were repeated in a voice memo received by AAP FactCheck on March 23.

On Facebook, posts debunked by fact checkers are flagged and demoted as part of the social media company's Third Party Fact-Checking program.

However, there is little visibility for messages circulating in chat groups or by text message.

Queensland University of Technology Professor Axel Bruns said tracking and understanding how fake news spreads on closed messaging apps is "the great unknown".

"Because of their design, what happens in private messaging apps is almost impossible to track and remains largely unknown to outside observers," he said.

Another widely circulated fake message last week claiming Australia was headed into a full lockdown was rejected by federal Health Minister Greg Hunt the same day.

The coronavirus pandemic has triggered a global surge of online misinformation that governments, health officials, the media and fact-checkers are working to combat.

A collaboration to combat online coronavirus misinformation by the International Fact-Checking Network has so far published more than 1,500 checks.

Prof Bruns told AAP FactCheck it could be problematic if governments stepped in to stop misinformation spreading on private messaging apps.

"State intervention in private messaging might only bolster the conspiracy theorists who already claim that the state is suppressing information about the crisis," he said.