WhatsApp, the world's most widely used communications app, has announced a partnership with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to launch a global public helpline in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The helpline, which can be accessed by sending a text to +41-79-893-1892, is an automated chatbot-based service that is being launched with the primary intention of helping people find an authentic, official helpline for coronavirus-related information on what is the world's most used communications platform. WhatsApp, which runs on over 2 billion devices across the world, is actively used by over a quarter of the world's population, and given its massive size, also plays a massive responsibility of offering the right information — thereby placing it right at the centre of the global fight against COVID-19.
What's interesting to note is that WhatsApp has had a rather prolonged — and complicated — history with misinformation. The Facebook-owned service has been extensively blamed in the past as users frequently took to WhatsApp to share unverified links, infographics and other content. This created a rather sharp problem of fake news and misinformation for WhatsApp leading up to key global elections such as India's 2019 Lok Sabha elections, and United States' 2016 Presidential elections. It has also seen fake news being circulated to spread communal hate, which caused disruptions such as mob lynching cases in India.
In light of such incidents, WhatsApp responded by offering tools such as a forwarded label to warn users of potentially viral content that may be misleading, and significantly stepping up its efforts against spam IDs. Despite that, the company has thoroughly defended its stance on end to end encryption, despite facing stress from legislators to create a backdoor to identify miscreants on the platform. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, these factors also tend to play against WhatsApp's universal influence, since it cannot directly and willfully interfere in information shared between two users, which quite frequently turns out to be misleading.
WHO's helpline is aimed to address all of these concerns by introducing an officially moderated helpline for all coronavirus resources. It offers a simple, IVR-type layout, using which any WhatsApp user can get access to the latest COVID-19 numbers, a further link to a global, nation-wise charts, latest news, healthcare suggestions, and even a dedicated section that busts myths and rumours about the COVID-19 strain and possible remedies to it. The account is a global one, and can be accessed by any WhatsApp user by texting on the aforementioned helpline.