WhatsApp blamed for spreading misinformation about vaccines in Brazil

Most of the attention around fake news has focused on Facebook and YouTube, but other apps and services can also play a role in spreading misinformation, as Wired points out in a March 9 piece on the use of Facebook-owned messaging app WhatsApp in Brazil. Use of the app is apparently complicating the country’s attempts to deal with an outbreak of yellow fever, because of false reports about vaccinations:

In recent weeks, rumors of fatal vaccine reactions, mercury preservatives, and government conspiracies have surfaced with alarming speed on the Facebook-owned encrypted messaging service, which is used by 120 million of Brazil’s roughly 200 million residents. The platform has long incubated and proliferated fake news, in Brazil in particular. With its modest data requirements, WhatsApp is especially popular among middle and lower income individuals there, many of whom rely on it as their primary news consumption platform.

According to Wired, among the conspiracy theories circulating about the vaccination program are an audio message from a woman claiming to be a doctor, warning that the vaccine is dangerous, and a fake-news story connecting the death of a university student to the vaccine. As similar reports about the impact of Facebook in countries like Myanmar have shown, social-media driven conspiracy theories in the US can be annoying but in other parts of the world they can actually endanger people’s lives.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.