Over the weekend, as many schools and businesses shuttered, text messages began to cause panic.
One such text falsely claimed that US President Donald Trump would enact the Stafford Act in 48 to 72 hours and order a two-week mandatory quarantine. The National Security Council quickly refuted the rumors of a national quarantine on Twitter.
In fact, the Stafford Act, a law that allows the federal government to unlock resources directly to states has already been activated. Trump declared the coronavirus pandemic a national emergency on Friday, using authority granted by the law, which passed in 1988 and has been updated twice since. The Stafford Act does not have a provision that would allow the federal government to declare a mandatory quarantine.
Other viral texts have claimed that cities were going to shut down over the weekend. In New York, one text message falsely said roads, airports, and public transportation would be affected. The texts became so widespread that Mayor Bill De Blasio and the NYPD both had to debunk.
The texts were not limited to New York. Similar messages spread in Florida, Chicago, Los Angeles, and cities outside the US. The misinformation is not even limited to group chats, with many people passing on dubious voice memos that made similar claims.
Claire Wardle, cofounder of the fact-checking nonprofit First Draft, said it’s not surprising these false facts were circulating quickly.
“It’s a kernel of truth thing,” she told BuzzFeed News. “You see that and it’s not out of the realm of possibility.”
The messages are like a broken game of telephone.
“Fear is the biggest driver of disinformation; it’s a perfect storm of misinformation,” she said.
The false texts are impossible to trace back to their sources, meaning they could be the work of an intentional disinformation campaign or an organic rumor.
“Right now I would like to see WhatsApp to give governments broadcast capabilities,” Wardle said. “There is no reason right now to not test any big ideas.”
She also suggested WhatsApp turn off forwarding functions and work with governments and academics to find new ways to thwart the spread of misinformation.
“WhatsApp should recognize that it’s a huge vector for misinformation,” Wardle said.
A spokesperson for the company said WhatsApp has implemented measures to fight disinformation in 15 countries, including Israel, Brazil, and Singapore. The company also reached out to health officials in North America.
“I this extraordinary time we are partnering with governments, technology companies, and civil society to respond to the immense challenge presented by the Coronavirus. WhatsApp is an important tool for health workers to coordinate and we have engaged health ministries around the world to provide simple ways for citizens to receive accurate information about the virus right on WhatsApp," the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
Other mass text messages shared very bad health advice. One falsely said that drinking water can help kill the virus. It was falsely attributed to Stanford University and has been debunked by multiple experts.