As social media has become more inhospitable, the appeal of private online groups has grown. But they hold their own dangers – to those both inside and out.
In the spring, as the virus swept across the world and billions of people were compelled to stay at home, the popularity of one social media app rose more sharply than any other. By late March, usage of WhatsApp around the world had grown by 40%. In Spain, where the lockdown was particularly strict, it rose by 76%. In those early months, WhatsApp – which hovers neatly between the space of email, Facebook and SMS, allowing text messages, links and photos to be shared between groups – was a prime conduit through which waves of news, memes and mass anxiety travelled.
What's wrong with WhatsApp
At first, many of the new uses were heartening. Mutual aid groups sprung up to help the vulnerable. Families and friends used the app to stay close, sharing their fears and concerns in real time. Yet by mid-April, the role that WhatsApp was playing in the pandemic looked somewhat darker. A conspiracy theory about the rollout of 5G, which originated long before Covid-19 had appeared, now claimed that mobile phone masts were responsible for the disease. Across the UK, people began setting fire to 5G masts, with 20 arson attacks over the Easter weekend alone.
WhatsApp, along with Facebook and YouTube, was a key channel through which the conspiracy theory proliferated. Some feared that the very same community groups created during March were now accelerating the spread of the 5G conspiracy theory. Meanwhile, the app was also enabling the spread of fake audio clips, such as a widely shared recording in which someone who claimed to work for the NHS reported that ambulances would no longer be sent to assist people with breathing difficulties.
This was not the first time that WhatsApp has been embroiled in controversy. While the “fake news” scandals surrounding the 2016 electoral upsets in the UK and US were more focused upon Facebook – which owns WhatsApp – subsequent electoral victories for Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Narendra Modi in India were aided by incendiary WhatsApp messaging, exploiting the vast reach of the app in these countries. In India, there have also been reports of riots and at least 30 deaths linked to rumours circulating on WhatsApp. India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has sought ways of regulating WhatsApp content, though this has led to new controversies about government infringement on civil liberties. [...]