How do we use messaging platforms such as WhatsApp appropriately in a crisis?
While digital platforms can facilitate timely information exchange as well as civic engagement, they can also be used to manipulate opinions and behaviour, spread panic and to amplify divides. Indeed, instant messaging platforms are double-edged swords, manifested clearly amidst the COVID-19 outbreak. Dr Natalie Pang (NUS Centre for Trusted Internet and Community and NUS Department of Communications and New Media) explains why WhatsApp is a hotspot for rumours and disinformation, and how users can better leverage it as a force for good instead.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, WhatsApp has been teeming with rumours, memes, and cautionary messages – such as those advising people to avoid specific hospitals and malls associated with confirmed or suspected cases. Dr Pang states that some features of WhatsApp contribute to the persistence and resilience of such information despite official public communication channels such as the Gov.sg WhatsApp group. Features like the double blue ticks on WhatsApp encourage reciprocity and two-way exchanges, which can contribute to the persistence of a topic. Also, the ability to forward messages to multiple groups and individuals, along with guaranteed confidentiality of these messages through end-to-end encryption, encourages the trending of memes and rumours. Dr Pang also notes the presence of social dynamics in WhatsApp groups, whereby users find it more difficult to correct messages by admins or moderators, or someone who is perceived as an authority or senior in real life. These biases can cause their messages to seem more convincing and persuasive.
Nevertheless, Dr Pang states that these very same features of WhatsApp can provide opportunities for civic engagement. Members in chat groups can share facts and official sources of information to contest dubious information or hateful speech. There also needs to be a rethinking of how we engage with each other; individuals should verify the facts even if it means questioning the sender or disrupting norms in the chat group. Dr Pang believes that even though the government maintains laws that blunt the spread of misinformation, ground-up civic action and awareness remain the most effective tools in combating it.
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