One morning in April, I woke up to 77 alerts from my family WhatsApp group. Usually, that many messages mean only one of two things: Either it’s someone’s birthday or someone has posted a video of their child singing a classical Indian song. This time, though, my family was talking about the coronavirus: One relative had sent a chart ranking the virus as less lethal than a dozen other diseases, and implying that it wasn’t a global pandemic. Another had posted a video of a Gujarati-speaking man in scrubs telling people that a reliable, free coronavirus test involved holding one’s breath. “If you don’t cough after [the first] three seconds, you don’t have coronavirus,” he said. An aunt sent a message suggesting that everyone build immunity by drinking warm turmeric-infused water with ginger.
Psychologists have found that people are quicker to share unverified information with those closest to them, and they are more likely to believe fake news when it is sent by friends and family. These factors can turn family group chats into dangerous platforms for the spread of misinformation. Before the coronavirus commandeered our thoughts, careers, and freedom of movement, my family was just a scattered group of people popping in and out of one another’s lives. We rarely discussed politics or climate change, and the most intense arguments occurred when parents attempted to outdo one another with pictures of their children skiing in Tahoe or running a half marathon in Switzerland. Now coronavirus misinformation has poisoned the usually mundane feed, as it has many family conversations worldwide.