How to help your family navigate the coronavirus ‘infodemic’ on WhatsApp

Nadine Yousif: My grandmother’s WhatsApp messages on coronavirus—from chopping onions and placing them in corners of your home to limit the spread of the disease to helicopters spraying cities with disinfectant at night—are alarming

An Indian girl watches a video on the WhatsApp app in New Delhi, India on Mar. 24. With coronavirus starting to spread in the region, social media are rife with bogus remedies, tales of magic cures and potentially hazardous medical advice. (Manish Swarup/AP/CP)

An Indian girl watches a video on the WhatsApp app in New Delhi, India on Mar. 24. With coronavirus starting to spread in the region, social media are rife with bogus remedies, tales of magic cures and potentially hazardous medical advice. (Manish Swarup/AP/CP)

Nadine Yousif is an assistant editor at Maclean’s. 

Once a day, my iPhone will let out a sharp, staggered ding. The noise is distinct from all the other notifications I usually get—the dings go on and on, as my phone tries to keep up with the 30 messages I’ve received in the span of two seconds.

This doesn’t alarm me, or at least, it didn’t used to. My 77-year-old grandmother has a habit of forwarding several messages at once on WhatsApp. She lives in Chicago, some 1,600 miles away from my apartment in Edmonton, and the messaging app is the way we stay connected. But her messages—forwarded to almost everyone on her contact list—usually come at odd times during the day. Most of the messages are videos or wordy text posts in Arabic that would take me a long time to read, so I usually ignore them and opt to pick up the phone to ask how she is doing.

Since the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus, an older generation of immigrants who rely on WhatsApp or WeChat to stay connected with family overseas are now spending more time on these messaging platforms. And since all anyone talks or reads about nowadays is COVID-19, their forwarded messages now follow a similar theme. But in the era of rampant disinformation, not everything they read, watch and share is credible.

MORE: Coronavirus in Canada: how to get tested, what the symptoms are, where to get help

Take, for example, the viral post that circulated among the Arab community on WhatsApp in March, asking people to close their doors and windows at  11:40 p.m. sharp as helicopters would be descend at night to spray disinfectant on the city. Or another one, which claimed that chopping onions and placing them at different corners of one’s home would curb the spread of the virus. Others have claimed a mysterious Costco-wide recall of Kirkland tissue paper, with grainy, unverified images asking people to return what they’ve bought.

In case you’re wondering, none these posts contain truths. And while some of these false claims may be humorous (viral tweets have since jokingly mocked family members as having “a degree in coronavirus from WhatsApp university”) others, which promise cures and home remedies for COVID-19, might be more harmful.

Alarmed by what my grandmother might be reading or sending on the messaging platform, I began to pay closer attention to those WhatsApp dings. I worried she might believe some of these hoaxes and unknowingly put herself in danger. News of an Arizona man in his 60s dying after ingesting chloroquine phosphate, which was touted as a COVID-19 treatment by U.S. president Donald Trump, only added to my anxiety. I began to feel helpless; my grandmother may come across dozens of false claims a week, many circulating from media platforms I wasn’t familiar with, and I was nowhere near her to counter them.

I reached out to Kevin Huang, the executive director of the Vancouver-based Hua Foundation, which does outreach work for older members of the city’s Chinatown community. The rise of disinformation Huang has seen on coronavirus is concerning, so much so that he began working on a project to curb the problem. I was curious what advice he had to help me do the same, but with my own family.

“This has always been the situation where groups such as WeChat or WhatsApp have been sources of information for a lot of our elders,” Huang says. “It’s so easy for them to share information that they think is shocking or must be true.”

This left me wondering: How do we, as the younger generation, help our elders find credible information?

For Huang, it starts by creating a sense of trust and safety in verified sources, however foreign they may initially feel to those family members. Second, it’s important to be mindful of the cultural sensitivities tied to respecting your elders. “We have to find creative ways to talk to them about it,” Huang explains. “Because if you directly challenge the elders, it’s disrespectful to them.”

Rashmi Acharya, an English-language instructor with the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, who works with adults from a myriad of countries, including Syria, Vietnam and Eritrea, has been sharing easy-to-understand videos that explain basic preventative measures like washing your hands or staying home if you’re sick with her students on WhatsApp. She also checks in on them periodically to ensure they understand the content and are keeping safe.

The blame shouldn’t be placed entirely on those spreading disinformation. For many, WhatsApp is a way to connect with loved ones beyond borders, and the forwarded messages are a means of showing support during a difficult time. “In times of uncertainty, people seek out things that they can latch onto to , [to] make sense of stuff,” says Huang.

By sharing that information, grandmothers, parents and ‘WhatsApp Aunties’ are only trying to extend the sense of comfort those messages may bring them. The messages also address them in their native language, whether it be Arabic, Mandarin, or Punjabi, and therefore feel more comfortable compared to mainstream information. Finding a way to stop them from spreading is almost impossible, Huang adds.

But the onus shouldn’t entirely be on us, he says. “I think the government can actually do a better job, including a better job translating these urgent, timely materials” related to COVID-19, he says. This is important given Canada’s large population of first-generation immigrants and refugees.

Ultimately, being compassionate and empathetic towards our elders while sharing the factual information from health authorities can be the most effective way to counter misinformation during the coronavirus pandemic.