The Washington Post - 03.03.2020

(Barré) #1




Hours after Nigeria confirmed
its first case of coronavirus friday,
olumide m akanjuola, w ho lives in
the state of Lagos, opened
W hatsApp and was bombarded
with a “sense o f panic.”
Users on the messaging service
had c opied, pasted a nd f orwarded
notes warning that local flights,
hotels and schools might have
been contaminated. None of the
information had been verified,
makanjuola said, but multiple ver-
sions of it snaked their way
through private WhatsApp
groups, some with hundreds of
“The virus is closer to us than
we think,” two of the messages
ominously c oncluded.
As government leaders and
health professionals race to con-
tain an outbreak on the verge of a
pandemic, they are simultaneous-
ly battling another hard-to-defeat
scourge: the explosion of half-
truths and outright falsehoods on-
line. Nowhere is the threat more
dire than on WhatsApp, a service
largely hidden from public scruti-
ny, vast i n its global reach and often
at the center of some of the world’s
most panic-inducing conspiracy
People in Nigeria, Singapore,
Brazil, Pakistan, Ireland and o ther
countries say they’ve seen a flood
of misinformation about corona-
virus on WhatsApp, from the
number of people affected to the
way the illness is transmitted and
the availability of treatments. The
messages and voice memos have
instilled fear, troubled businesses
and created public health head-
aches for governments, including
Botswana, which pleaded with
people last month to be wary of
what they’re reading and sharing
on the service.
WhatsApp’s parent company,
facebook, has labored to vet or
remove similar harmful coronavi-
rus-related content on its name-
sake social network. But the tech
giant c an’t m onitor WhatsApp the
same way. C onversations there are
encrypted, meaning messages can
be read only by the sender and
recipients — not the company,
even in the midst of an urgent,
deadly international health c risis.

makanjuola, a sexual-health
and rights advocate, said he ap-
preciated the delicate balance be-
tween security and freedom of ex-
pression that made oversight of
WhatsApp s o difficult. B ut, he said
in an interview, “the idea people
can transfer panic is something
that really does worry me.”
Carl Woog, a spokesman for
WhatsApp, said the company had
been vigilant in trying to reduce
the reach of misinformation,
stressing it is working with gov-
ernments and others “to respond
to the immense challenge present-
ed by the C oronavirus.”
“WhatsApp i s an important t ool
for health workers to coordinate
and we have engaged health min-
istries around the world to pro-
vide simple ways for citizens to
receive accurate information
about the virus,” he said in a state-
With 2 billion users globally,
WhatsApp has emerged as one of
the world’s most popular messag-
ing systems. Users flocked to the
service in its e arly days, when it cost
only a dollar each year, because it
was much cheaper than texting
over fee-heavy traditional phone
services. Now free, it ranks as one of
the top downloads throughout Eu-
rope, Africa and Asia, particularly
in countries where telecom infra-
structure is lacking.
Like facebook, though, the me-
teoric rise of WhatsApp also has
brought myriad unanticipated
challenges globally. malicious ac-
tors at times have seized on What-
sApp’s expansive audience — and
its easy tools to share text, audio,
photos and videos among groups
of friends — to push harmful mes-
sages t o large numbers o f people.
In India, viral misinformation
on WhatsApp triggered real-
world violence. At one point in
2018, experts could trace two doz-
en deaths to fake news, including
false reports of child kidnappings,
that spread on the service. And in
Brazil, WhatsApp has served as a
staging ground for political false-
hoods, including a raft of rumors
that imperiled the country’s most
recent election.
Under global pressure, What-
sApp has labored to improve its
digital defenses — labeling mes-
sages that had been shared, for

example, while restricting the
number of times content could be
forwarded to others. researchers
say some of the technical tweaks
have helped by introducing what
they call friction, slowing the pro-
liferation of propaganda, conspir-
acy theories and other harmful
Woog, the spokesman, added
th at WhatsApp had run local edu-
cation campaigns around the
world “to help encourage people
not to spread rumors.” WhatsApp
also bans millions of accounts
each month for sending bulk or
automated messages.
But WhatsApp’s prized security
features also p revent the c ompany
from moderating content with the
same aggressiveness as public-fac-
ing social-networking services,
which have invested heavily in
workers and technology t o protect
users from abuse. The lack of visi-
bility has frustrated regulators, in-
cluding in the United States,
where Attorney General William
P. B arr said WhatsApp s tymies t he
investigation of crimes, including
child sexual exploitation. Authori-
ties in the United States and
around the world h ave threatened
to force facebook to give govern-
ments a ccess to encrypted data.
Even if WhatsApp could scan
every message, users might bristle
to learn a profit-seeking t ech g iant
inserted itself into their private,
sensitive conversations. The re-
sult is that the very features that

make WhatsApp so alluring to
people — and so important to fa-
cebook — also heighten the likeli-
hood that i t could become a breed-
ing ground for misinformation.
In recent weeks, WhatsApp us-
ers throughout Africa and Asia
reported a stream of t ext messages
and voice memos in private chan-
nels that pitch fake coronavirus
cures, according to copies of the
messages annoyed recipients
shared with The Washington Post
and published on sites such as
Twitter. Some of the recirculated
texts wrongly list garlic, salt w ater
and a type of tea as natural reme-
dies f or the outbreak, even t hough
no treatments exist.
other p roblematic m essages in-
flate the number of people affect-
ed or push widely debunked con-
spiracy t heories about t he corona-
virus and its origins. often, users
pass along these hoaxes — even if
unwittingly — in groups of con-
tacts t hey create. T hese groups are
often capped at 250 members, but
one falsehood shared in multiple
channels s till can become a conta-
gion of its own.
To lu ogunlesi, a top n ew-media
adviser to Nigerian President mu-
hammadu Buhari, said he has
seen a wave of c onspiracy theories
about coronavirus metastasizing
this way. o ne alarming WhatsApp
message he shared with The Post
said falsely that a major oil compa-
ny on Banana Island, Lagos, had
been placed on lockdown after a

worker had contracted the coro-
misinformation i s hardly a new
phenomenon i n Nigeria: In 2 018, a
hoax that Buhari had died and
been replaced by a clone went viral
online, including on WhatsApp,
which ogunlesi described as the
most popular communications
platform in the c ountry.
Nigerians generally have be-
come more digitally savvy, w ith a n
“increasing awareness now about
the ubiquity and dangers” of mis-
information, according t o ogunle-
si. But he still has “started polic-
ing” WhatsApp groups, he said,
trying to push back on fake news
and encouraging his peers to do
the same.
“I’m not quite sure how much
they can do in terms of actually
policing WhatsApp content the
way they police f acebook content,”
ogunlesi said of the t ech giant. “If I
had a message to the tech compa-
nies, it would be to invest a lot
more m oney in digital literacy.
“Everybody is dealing with
this,” h e continued. “ This is a glob-
al thing, and nobody has quite
figured out what needs to be
The government of Botswana
warned people about WhatsApp
last month. “The ministry notes
with concern the misleading in-
formation circulating on social
media particularly facebook and
WhatsApp, about #coronavirus
situation in the country,” local au-
thorities tweeted on feb. 2. The
Embassy of Botswana in Washing-
ton d id not r espond to requests f or
Government officials in Brazil
— long aware of the power and
pain of WhatsApp — similarly
sounded an urgent note o f caution.
The state’s ministry of Health
tracked and vetted inaccurate
WhatsApp messages about the
number of citizens who are sick,
along w ith other hoaxes, including
one that wrongly said Chinese im-
ports are tainted with the illness.
“false information causes pan-
ic in the population and hinders
the investigative work of the com-
petent authorities,” the govern-
ment warned. A spokesman for
the Embassy of Brazil in Washing-
ton d id not r espond to requests f or

Hoping to help governments
grappling with the coronavirus,
WhatsApp said it has offered help
to regulators in 15 countries so far,
including with efforts to set up
dedicated tip lines on the service
for accurate health information. In
Singapore, where regulators just
last week warned about “unsub-
stantiated information over What-
sApp,” h ealth officials n ow are able
to pass along daily, credible up-
dates to anyone who signs up.
But the battle against rumors
and hoaxes is difficult to wage,
especially in real time, as busi-
nesses and users have learned in
recent weeks. A digital concierge
for the Conrad hotel in Dublin
spent at least some portion of fri-
day telling people it was not in fact
shuttered because of a suspected
case of coronavirus o n the premis-
es. myths about local hotel lock-
downs appeared to originate in
online c hannels, i ncluding Twitter
and WhatsApp, s ocial media com-
plaints suggest.
“There are no confirmed cases
of coronavirus, and the hotel is
operating as usual,” said John
Brooks, a spokesman for Hilton,
which owns the facility. The com-
pany declined to comment on the
role of WhatsApp in stoking ru-
other WhatsApp users are
fighting back.
In Karachi, Pakistan, local avi-
culturist Urooj Zia said she saw
misinformation last week in an
unlikely place — WhatsApp
groups dedicated to parrot breed-
ers. The dubious messages said
nearby Aga Khan Hospital had
released a patient after a “false
indication of the v irus.”
The text she received, and
shared with The Post, concluded:
“Don’t panic. Everything is under
A policy researcher by back-
ground, Zia told The Post she
learned from doctors that no such
patient had b een discharged. Still,
she s aid two people had c irculated
the message in two different
groups, each with hundreds of fol-
lowers, raising the potential that i t
spread e ven f urther.
“Debunking crap online,” she
said, “is what I do because some-
one h as to.”
[email protected]

Fake cures, conspiracy theories proliferate on WhatsApp

PIus utOmI eKPeI/AgeNCe FRANCe-PResse/getty ImAges
Visitors to a hospital in Lagos, nigeria, collect masks and gloves on
Friday, when the country’s first coronavirus case was confirmed.

Chinese authorities’ hands are
tied when it comes to asking
banks to forgive late payments or
issue even more risky loans to bail
out faltering businesses, said An-
drew Collier, a managing director
at orient Capital research who
frequently speaks to Chinese
bank executives.
The coronavirus hit at a time
when many Chinese banks were
already wobbling with bad loans
and households and businesses
were burdened by massive levels
of debt.
China’s leaders “are trying to
straddle between having an eco-
nomic meltdown and crashing
the banks,” C ollier said. He a dded,
“They will rather let some busi-
nesses go belly up than watch
banks collapse.”

Survival mode
Across the country, a few small
businesses are hoping to survive
by creative means rather than
government bailout.
owspace, a chain of bookstores
and cultural spaces that is popu-
lar with China’s urban literary
and art crowd, is asking book
lovers to make online donations
of between $7 and $1,100 as reve-
nue plunges 80 percent. Expatri-
ates in Beijing recently launched
a Gofundme crowdfunding cam-
paign to raise $330,000 to save
Comptoirs de france, a
l ong-established bakery chain
with 16 locations.
Holed up in an apartment in
Wuhan, Zuo Weiwei, an entrepre-
neur who has been selling cos-
metics and nutritional supple-
ments online, said the congestion
and breakdown in China’s ship-
ping industry forced her to end
her business.
“Dozens of customers who had
preordered products from me
asked for refunds,” she said. “I
simply couldn’t take it anymore.”
Hundreds of boxes of beauty
masks, dietary supplements and
silver-coated Buddhist amulets
lay piling up in her house. Under
these circumstances, Zuo said,
she is drastically downsizing her
“I’ve given up hopes of selling
stuff and making a fortune,” she
said. “my wish for this year is for
me and my family to stay healthy
and not get infected.”
[email protected]

Ly ric Li in Beijing and tiffany Liang in
Hong Kong contributed to this report.

anxiety. People simply do not
want to go out and spend.
“If people don’t eat at restau-
rants, that doesn’t just affect the
restaurant but also the seafood
supplier or farmer. If people don’t
shop for clothes, that affects the
silkmaker and weaver,” said Dai
ruochen, a Peking University
economist who helps lead the
survey group. “The economic im-
pact isn’t contained; it sends rip-
ples up level by level.”
Then there is the effect on
employment. In recent weeks,
companies across the country
have posted online notices apolo-
gizing to customers for closing
and to employees for mass lay-

A debt cloud darkens
In the once buzzing metropolis
of Shenzhen, Cao Tianfei closed a
roast-fish restaurant and paid a
$36,000 penalty to break his rent-
al contract in a mall that was shut
down for two weeks in february.
He laid off 15 workers.
“I felt like I abandoned my
kids,” he said. “But I had no
choice. Every morning I wake up,
rent and salaries just get sucked
out of me.”
Cao said the unpredictable na-
ture of the epidemic had scram-
bled his planning. “I’ve never
considered borrowing money
from the bank, because I can’t see
the end of the virus,” he said.
“Even if it ended today, it would
still be a long way for us to get out
of this.”
To counter the uncertainty,
China’s leaders have tried to proj-
ect calm. National authorities
have set a late-April target for the
virus to be fully contained, and a
central-bank official took to inter-
national media to tout how China
has rolled out no less than 30 poli-
cy measures, many of which spe-
cifically target “small and micro”
businesses, to ensure a quick re-
“The most likely scenario is a
V-shaped curve, which means a
decline in economic activities fol-
lowed by a rapid recovery, with
the total economic impact rela-
tively contained,” People’s B ank of
China deputy governor Chen Yulu
predicted in a financial Times
But there are risks to China’s
desperate attempt to restart its
economy, and many businesses
will inevitably die off, economists

“This is getting more and more
hopeless by the day.”
Several weeks into an epidemic
that brought the country to a
standstill, Chinese officials and
economists are increasingly wor-
ried about the devastation
wrought on a crucial part of the
economy: restaurants and retail-
ers, karaoke halls and family-
owned factories — countless
small and midsize businesses
that collectively employ 80 per-
cent of China’s workers and pro-
duce 68 percent of the country’s
business revenue.
“only 30 percent of small and
medium businesses nationwide
have resumed work,” Shu Cha-
ohui, an official at the ministry of
Industry and Information Te ch-
nology, told reporters Tuesday.
“It’s a pretty severe situation.”
How severe is it? A nationwide
survey led in february by Peking
University found half the coun-
try’s small businesses will run out
of cash within three months, and
14 percent might not survive past
mid-march. Unlike large state
conglomerates or multinational
companies that could weather
the storm, China’s small busi-
nesses say they simply do not
have cash reserves to continue
paying wages and rent.
And while manufacturing gi-
ants that mass-produce gadgets
such as Apple iPhones can rely on
the government to charter buses
and trains to shuttle migrant
workers back to their factories,
nearly 40 percent of smaller busi-
nesses say they cannot get their
workers back to Chinese cities
because of transportation bottle-
necks and quarantine restric-
tions, according to the Peking
University study.
The Chinese government has
been trying to prop up these
small, vulnerable businesses —
but with uncertain consequences.
ministries and bank regulators
have been pressuring banks to
extend loans to cash-strapped
businesses. They h ave asked lend-
ers to push back repayment dead-
lines or look the other way when
payments are late. They have also
waived requirements for busi-
nesses such as paying for social
Beyond that, experts say, p olicy
options are limited when swaths
of the country are effectively un-
der lockdown and a cloud of

cHInA from A

Small businesses in China losing hope









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