Facebook forced to limit misinformation spread via WhatsApp amid Sydney lockdown

New South Wales Health has issued a warning about misinformation circulating on WhatsApp that claims Sydney supermarkets will close as part of the ongoing lockdown, with owner Facebook saying it is working to limit the spread of misinformation on its private messaging app.

On Thursday, it was reported that a screenshot purporting to be from NSW Health saying that supermarkets would close for four days as part of the Covid-19 response was circulating on WhatsApp.

Supermarkets in NSW have remained open during the greater Sydney lockdown and are considered essential retail. In a statement on Friday, the state’s health department urged people not to take advice from anywhere but the official NSW Health channels.

“NSW Health is urging people to use trusted and credible sources of information to inform them about the most up-to-date Covid-19 information in NSW,” a spokesperson said.

A Facebook spokesperson said: “We clearly label messages that have been forwarded to help people know they’ve received something that was unlikely to have been written by friends or family. We also set limits on how messages can be forwarded to limit the spread of rumours. We encourage people to check the accuracy of messages they’ve received through authoritative sources, such as the helpline we’ve created with the Australian government that includes the latest and most accurate information about Covid-19.”

Misinformation being circulated through group chats on WhatsApp has been an ongoing issue throughout the pandemic, not just in Australia but around the world.

In Victoria’s second lockdown, messages circulated through WhatsApp falsely claimed that the state treasurer, Tim Pallas, was going to replace the premier, Daniel Andrews, to bring an end to the lockdown.

Last year the company introduced new rules to limit the spread of misinformation, including icons to note when a message is frequently forwarded and did not originate from a close contact. There is also a limit so these messages can only be sent one chat at a time.

WhatsApp has said this resulted in a 70% reduction in the number of highly forwarded messages on the app.

The head of WhatsApp, Will Cathcart, told an Australian Strategic Policy Institute briefing earlier this month that part of the difficulty in combatting misinformation being spread over a private messaging service like WhatsApp is that the company doesn’t have access to the messages being sent.

But he said WhatsApp was partnering with fact-checking services and embarking on public education campaigns about whether people should question rumours before they’re shared. He said in countries like Brazil it had been having an impact.

“I would never say we’ve achieved 100% success and I would never promise that that will continue forever, because this is an adversarial space, but if you look at the more recent elections in places like Brazil, I think there’s been a huge change in people’s estimate of what WhatsApp’s role was in the information environment compared to what it was years before,” he said.

He said WhatsApp was also getting better at detecting fake accounts being created to spread misinformation.

“We’ve over the last few years significantly ramped up our capability to detect cases where people are creating lots of fake or inauthentic accounts and automatically ban them,” he said. “We now ban millions of accounts a month, proactively, and that’s had a huge shift in the ability for people to go and set up a kind of an information farm and pump out information and try to do that over messaging.”

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