In an attempt to help users find accurate coronavirus information, WhatsApp and the World Health Organization (WHO) have launched a chatbot that will answer questions about the pandemic. When users text "hi" to the new WHO Health Alert (+41 79 893 1892), the service will respond with a series of prompts, the latest data and a few emojis. In addition to fighting misinformation on the platform, this could also help government decision-makers find the latest numbers and situation reports, WhatsApp says.
Yesterday, WhatsApp unveiled a coronavirus fact-checking hub in partnership with the WHO, UNICEF and the United Nations Development Programme. That's intended to share the latest news and advice related to COVID-19. The chatbot will go one step further and let users ask questions directly. WhatsApp also donated $1 million to support fact-checking organizations.
To receive updates on #COVID19 from WHO add this number— +41 79 893 18 92 to your contacts and send a @WhatsApp message. You'll automatically be registered to receive updates and also have an option to ask for more information as shown below. pic.twitter.com/WXaGd88AGf— WHO Uganda (@WHOUganda) March 20, 2020
According to The Guardian, the UK's NHS may also be developing a WhatsApp chatbot to share reliable coronavirus information. NHS already helps people in the UK find reliable health info via Google, and it has partnered with Amazon on an Alexa-based chatbot, so it could be well-positioned to add a WhatsApp bot.
While WhatsApp started as a messaging service, it has grown into a social network, and it's now used by over two billion people worldwide. It also poses a unique challenge in the fight against misinformation. Unlike other social networks and search engines, its messages are encrypted and untraced. As The Guardian points out, that makes it especially difficult for WhatsApp to crack down on false claims.
Last year, WhatsApp reduced its message forwarding limit to just five people or groups in an attempt to curb misinformation, and in 2018, it banned over 400,000 accounts during Brazil's election by cracking down on "automated and bulk messaging activity." WhatsApp has also made it easier to prevent contacts from dragging you into annoying group chats. Chatbots from reliable sources like the WHO could be another way to combat misinformation.
WhatsApp will likely play an important role in the coronavirus pandemic. Hopefully, it is a positive one.