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.
In times of crisis, people derive a sense of comfort from passing along information to their family members. During periods of high uncertainty, group discussion can give people the feeling that they have a sense of what’s going on. In an interview with Science magazine, the sociologist Emma Spiro said that this process helps assuage people’s anxieties, because it makes them feel as if they are making decisions “based on some communal group-level understanding of what is currently happening.” But when the purpose of a conversation is to comfort, people become much more likely to send information that appeals to them rather than information grounded in facts.
Compounding this problem is people’s increased tendency to believe misinformation when it comes from those with whom they have close ties, Cailin O’Connor, an associate professor of philosophy at UC Irvine, told me. Many people assess information they’re receiving based on not just the quality of the information itself, but the degree to which they see themselves as socially and culturally similar to the person relaying it. “The closer you perceive yourself to [be to] someone … the more you trust the information they're sharing,” O’Connor said. “With families I would think, a lot of the time, that kind of closeness would be in place."
Family group chats are also likely to include people less familiar with social media and less used to filtering out the waves of misinformation on its platforms. My 80-year-old grandmother, for example, who lives in an Indian temple in Amish country, has an iPhone just for our weekly Google Hangouts. Once she’s asked everyone whether they’re okay, she hangs up on us mid-conversation. A 2019 study in Science Advances found that people from older generations tend to share misinformation nearly seven times more frequently than younger family members, even when factors such as education and partisan affiliation were taken into account.
And although people might recognize that their relatives are spreading misinformation, their close bonds can make speaking out difficult. A 2019 study found that only 21 percent of people surveyed in the U.K. reported correcting others who shared false or inaccurate information. That number is likely to be even smaller in family group chats, O’Connor told me, because it is inherently uncomfortable to disagree with those close to you—think of the way people dread having to deal with their argumentative uncles on Thanksgiving. “There is this psychological force of us all kind of wanting to conform a little bit and not stick out,” O’Connor said. “Within families, it can be a powerful force. When someone is saying, ‘Oh, I believe X,’ it pushes others just to accept it rather than to say, ‘Well, you’re wrong about X.’”
The coronavirus-misinformation spread in my family group chat is often influenced by elements of our shared South Asian Hindu culture, notably the broad acceptance of homeopathic remedies. Sharlyn Vareed, a lawyer from San Francisco, has had a similar experience. She told me that some of her family members have been sharing and resharing a grid of “coronavirus-protection foods to eat every day,” including aloe-vera juice, Indian gooseberry, and bitter gourds. She grew even more concerned when a cousin in the Bay Area sent a chart claiming that the Vedic flow would bring the coronavirus to an end on September 23. Many Hindus fiercely believe in astrology—at birth, some of us receive personalized horoscopes, outlining our future based on birth time and location. When I tried to schedule a baby shower last year, its date changed at least a half-dozen times because my mom believed that the stars were not aligned correctly. According to Radhika Gajjala, a media-and-communication professor at Bowling Green State University, sharing astrology and home remedies is a way of preserving a sense of culture. However, during a public-health crisis, an overreliance on these practices can have pernicious consequences.
For me and some of my friends, one of the most troubling things about family group chats is watching our relatives share misinformation that demonizes groups of people. My old college friend Namita Dodeja told me that some of her family members were using social media to disseminate fake news that blamed Muslims for the spread of the coronavirus. The final straw for Vareed was when a relative sent her a doctored National Geographic article blaming anyone of Chinese origin for the transmission of the virus.
To squelch the spread of misinformation, family members will have to be proactive in flagging fake news in group chats, even if it leads to uncomfortable conversations with loved ones. Gajjala told me that she has noticed many members of the younger generation taking on the necessary responsibility of pushing back against misinformation sent by older relatives.
Soon after I had muted the WhatsApp group with the never-ending notifications, one of my cousins sent a message to the family saying she had read somewhere that the Indian government was monitoring private chats for misinformation, and would punish the administrators if they found evidence of the same. It would be better, she wrote, if we went back to pre-coronavirus birthday reminders.
A few days later, I called her to find out whether any of that was true. “I don’t know, but it stopped the messages,” she said, laughing over FaceTime from her kitchen.
It was only fitting that a piece of misinformation brought an end to the misinformation.
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