This article is part of IranWire's ongoing coverage of Covid-19 disinformation in different countries, in partnership with Health Studio.
By Ramsha Jahangir for Health Studio
We’ve all been there. In fact, we often live with them. In Pakistan, few people’s phones go for long without notifications thanks to “WhatsApp Uncles”: an umbrella term used to describe friends, family members and colleagues who have taken on the role of digital super-spreader of false information during the pandemic.
With 2 billion active users on WhatsApp globally and with WhatsApp the most popular messaging app in Pakistan, it is no surprise that Covid-19 disinformation is spreading like wildfire on group chats on this platform. While most people manage to overlook these “forward-as-received” messages, even the most stoic of users occasionally make the mistake of engaging with WhatsApp uncles once in a while.
Ever since the coronavirus pandemic struck, outlandish statements and conspiracy theories about the virus – and, latently, vaccines – have taken over many people’s family WhatsApp groups. In an ideal world, there would be a magical cure-all (known locally as a totka) with which to win such conversations. But in the real world, here’s what may help:
After a facepalm, a deep sigh and potentially having lost a few brain cells, you might feel compelled to attempt to debunk a Covid-19 conspiracy theory shared on your WhatsApp group chat. A noble goal. But first, breathe – we’ve got your back.
Before attempting to debunk a conspiracy theory, it might be useful to understand why they’re enticing to people in the first place. Conspiracy theories’ power lies in their emotional impact; people are more susceptible to believing falsehoods in times of uncertainty and confusion.
According to Dannagal Young, a social psychologist who once turned to conspiracy theories herself after her husband was diagnosed with a terminal illness, feelings of “collective uncertainty, powerlessness, and negativity likely account for the popularity of Covid-19-related conspiracy theories circulating online”.
It’s not about right or wrong, but about trying to make sense of the world. Conspiracy theories offer easy-to-follow, black-and-white narratives that provide comfort when a great deal is up in the air.
2. Teach Them Something They Don’t Know
Many people have been spending more time online during the pandemic, meaning they are more likely to seek out information on the internet and social media – including, sometimes, on WhatsApp groups.
Unsurprisingly, messages from WhatsApp uncles are almost always “forwarded as received”. Such people defend their arguments by saying they’ve done their own research, but as the format of these messages shows, this so-called research is often based on the content of internet echo chambers: other WhatsApp groups, Facebook posts, and fringe YouTube channels, which are not fact-checked or peer-reviewed sources.
That said, it’s hard to blame older people for misusing the internet if they don’t know how it works. It might help to initiate a conversation about how recommended content and algorithms work on social media to target specific groups with specific information, keeping like-minded people in their own bubbles. Drawing their attention to the dynamics of their own bubble might encourage them to notice it and step outside of it.
3. Build Trust
Avoid dismissing the other person’s opinion when engaging with difficult topics. As far as possible, approach these conversations without being combative. Colin Dickey, an author and academic who has spent time writing about conspiracy theories, has suggested in a recent article that if you want to effectively question someone’s belief in a conspiracy theory, you must begin from a place of trust. “That doesn’t mean you have to agree with anything,” he writes, “but present yourself as someone who has an open mind.”
WhatsApp uncles are passionate about their Covid-19 theories. They will defend their point of view to the grave. Being aggressive will only make them more defensive, and is therefore counter-productive.
Instead, try to show curiosity and interest by asking questions instead of making personal attacks. When their answers are inevitably weak, point out the flaws and offer alternative, scientifically-supported facts. Find a way to engage in a conversation that doesn’t feel to them like a personal attack. Make them feel that you are talking with them, not at them.
4. Talk in Private
Social media platforms and group chats are often the worst places to talk about these thorny issues. Imagine being called out in a group of 40 family members or friends: it automatically becomes personal.
People are more likely to let their guard down during private discussions, abandoning their more performative social media behaviors. Face-to-face interactions also allow for tone of voice and facial expression to mitigate the exchange.
The bottom line is not to single anyone out in group discussions; it may help them to remain at ease and willing to listen. The BBC has recently published a useful video guide to talking about Covid-19 conspiracy theories with loved ones.
5. Don’t Expect to Win
The aim of an argument or discussion is not victory but progress. WhatsApp uncles are driven by a sense of superiority and self-esteem that will make them resistant to change. Nothing will happen overnight.
Remember, too, that there are some valid debates about the pandemic. As plenty of legitimate media reports attest, there is still a lot about Covid-19 that we don’t know. In the absence of hard facts, it’s difficult to reason and easy to speculate.
Like any other desi (local) conversation, this could be a long process. While muting conversations may seem to be the obvious solution, don’t give up on your WhatsApp uncles!