Is your PhD in coronavirus from WhatsApp University?

Wednesday May 13 2020

As we are all cooped up in houses, observing self-quarantine, isolation, social distancing or curfews, we have phones in our hands and are quickly digesting news and developments from across the world and from remote villages in Kenya for the latest on coronavirus.

We are also sharing news and our findings, mainly on WhatsApp, the most popular messaging platform in the world with over two billion users.

There is a dark side to the app’s ease of sharing pictures, documents, text, and video. Anything can be uploaded on WhatsApp from quickly-taken photos of confidential documents to clips of violence without proper context or verification.

There are also doctored documents, and old clips that get re-shared with new claims. An example was the alleged, and since disproven, video of Kobe Bryant’s doomed helicopter that was one of another tragic crash of a medical helicopter in the UAE, two years earlier.

The app has been flagged for its use to promote misinformation and hate, mainly around election time, in Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya. In 2019, in response to outbreaks of violence in India, spurred by WhatsApp messages, all users of the platform were limited to sharing a message to five recipients at a time.

With the coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) set up a WhatsApp number to share news and information about the pandemic. The Government of Kenya whose officials, including the Health Cabinet Secretary have lamented about the spread of misinformation on social media is also launching one WhatsApp tool through the Ministry of Health.

Fact-checking site Africa Check now has a WhatsApp line where people can forward them messages they see on WhatsApp and the organisation will check whether a claim is true or false and share it back. The user can then forward this verified response to the original “sender” of the “forward” or post it the group where it appeared. These efforts have not stopped forwards with claims about secret Covid-19 cures like tea, anti-malaria tablets and garlic that keep recurring in family and neighbourhood WhatsApp groups, but hopefully, they will reduce over time.


A recent article in The Wilson Quarterly points to concerns that some of the features that make WhatsApp so attractive, such as exposing users’ phone numbers to group members, may also violate clauses of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) laws. Kenya and several African countries have also modelled data protection laws, some of which mimic GDPR.  It adds that, once Covid-19 passes, Europe may turn its attention to regulating WhatsApp and cites some companies that now forbid their employees from using WhatsApp on any company-provided devices.

The possibilities of WhatsApp for business are mixed: According to Nendo’s new Digital Trends 2020 report, the number of WhatsApp users in Kenya is estimated at about 13 million with 3 million downloads in 2019. Nendo’s Mark Kaigwa, adds that “WhatsApp for Business” that was recently launched, enabling companies to build chat-based experiences on top of WhatsApp, has led to some interesting new tools such as Leo by UBA Bank, Julie by Jubilee Insurance and Zuri by Safaricom.

Small businesses now use WhatsApp as a useful tool for marketing, to take customers’ orders, arrange deliveries and other customer services. When WhatsApp payments which are currently being tested in India. Is rolled out widely, that may shake up more banking, remittance and payments industries.

Twitter: @bankelele