With South African citizens now gripped with fear as the Covid-19 respiratory virus snakes its way across the country, Batswana is battling a war of its own – coronavirus conspiracy theories swarming the Facebook-owned messaging app – WhatsApp. The panic among citizens has unquestionably put the novel virus at the forefront of Batswana’s minds, which pundits say is creating a disproportionate response of fear and creating a sense of panic.
Last month on February 2, the Botswana government moved to warn people about the dangers that WhatsApp poses. “The Ministry notes with concern the misleading information circulating on social media particularly Facebook and WhatsApp, about #coronavirus situation in the country,” tweeted the authorities.
But the battle against misinformation is problematic as the government of Botswana learnt over the past few weeks as malicious actors seized on WhatsApp’s extensive audience in Botswana to share harmful messages about the coronavirus. In recent weeks, annoyed WhatsApp users in Botswana shared with Sunday Standard a stream of audio notes and text messages that pitch fake coronavirus cures. Some of the messages which are constantly circulating erroneously advice people to drink warm salt water and or boil gum tree leaves as natural remedies for corona virus, even though no treatment exists. With such messages being shared on WhatsApp groups with over 200 members, this is likely to become a contagion on its own as people continuously share debunked conspiracy theories about the coronavirus.
Last month the World Health Organisation dubbed the Covid-19 as a “massive infodemic” basically referring to the excess accurate and inaccurate information which makes it difficult for people to find reliable sources about the virus. In Botswana, the flood of misinformation has to a certain extent instilled fear among the citizenry and created a public health headache for the government, which in the month of February pleaded with people to be cautious of what they’re reading and sharing on the messaging platform.
A Public Relations consultant and social media marketing trainer Daniel Sepapi says whilst there is need to balance security and freedom of expression, attention must be paid to the fact that WhatsApp, unlike Facebook, is private and un-policed which makes it a channel for malicious misinformation about the coronavirus.
“WhatsApp messages cannot be monitored because conversations are encrypted, meaning messages can be read only by the sender and recipients,” says Sepapi. Failure to moderate WhatsApp means that security features that make WhatsApp so appealing to people might also heighten the likelihood that it could become a breeding ground for misinformation especially in a time of crisis like now.
Regulators in Botswana have also expressed concern over WhatsApp since its security features hamper it from investigating major crimes such as child exploitation. With the government currently not embarking on any major public relations drive about the coronavirus, the messaging platform is surely more likely to be at the centre of some of Botswana’s most panic-inducing Covid-19 conspiracy theories.
Batswana generally have become more digitally savvy as they are often warned about the dangers of misinformation. But one thing is for certain that the waves of conspiracy theories are likely to continue metastasizing in the coming months as long as the virus persists.