WhatsApp is facing calls to halt the spread of dangerous messages impersonating officials and health workers, as Ofcom has found half of people have seen Coronavirus fake news online.
A leading academic said the Government should have powers to break encryption so it can track dangerous misinformation spreading on private message services.
Dr Philip Howard, the director of Oxford University’s Internet Institute (OII), said it was “a problem” that messaging apps such as WhatsApp were unable to stop misinformation from spreading during the virus crisis because encryption means they cannot see the content of users’ messages.
His comments come after Ofcom found that 46 percent of adults had viewed misinformation about coronavirus online, with that number rising to 58 percent for 18 to 24-year-olds.
A poll of 2,000 people by the media regulator found that the false information most widely seen online was claims that people can wash coronavirus out by drinking water or gargling salt water.
Meanwhile, a number of dangerous falsehoods about the virus have proliferated on social media and messaging services in recent days, including baseless theories that the 5G mobile signal causes the virus.
Mobile operators said around 20 phone masts had been burned or vandalised over the weekend following the emergence of the conspiracy theory.
Many viral messages to emerge in recent weeks have purported to be from Government officials or health workers, or from people who know them.
On Wednesday, the South East Coast Ambulance Trust (Secamb) put out a statement rebutting claims in an audio clip made by someone pretending to be a paramedic and saying that a third of those who would die as a result of coronavirus would be children.
Dr Howard, who has led the OII’s research into the spread of fake news in recent years, said people were more inclined to believe false claims on services such as WhatsApp because the messages tend to have been shared by close family or friends.
He said: “It is definitely a problem that we can’t see this stuff, and the solution might be that, temporarily, the Government needs access. Or, at the next WhatsApp update, does it allows WhatsApp to track health misinformation?”
Earlier this week, WhatsApp said it was limiting the number of times highly-shared messages could be forwarded on to new groups in a bid to stem the spread of fake news.
The Telegraph understands that the company, owned by Facebook, is also developing a feature that will let people quickly check claims made in messages via outside search engines.
Damian Collins, the former head of the culture select committee, called on Facebook to share WhatsApp data on how messages were being spread with the Government to help it disrupt organised networks spreading fake news.
The Conservative MP, who has set up a fact-checking site called Infotaigon, added that people caught deliberately spreading dangerous misinformation should face criminal charges.
“If it can be shown that someone has knowingly and maliciously and at scale spread disinformation, then that should be an offence,” he said. “The Secamb message is an example – someone created that and pumped it into the system to try and scare people.”
Carl Woog, Communications Director of WhatsApp said: “With billions of people unable to see their friends and loved ones in person, it’s now more important than ever to secure private conversations and calls with end-to-end encryption.”