The story spreading on Brazilian WhatsApp went like this: a couple — a young woman and an older man — were kidnapping children to sell them as part of an international scheme.
The rumor circulated on the messaging app without much consequence until April 5, when someone spotted a 20-year-old woman and a 60-year-old man together in the center of Araruama, a city of 110,000 in Rio de Janeiro's picturesque Lake District. This stranger snapped a photo of them in a white 1989 Ford Escort, the license plate visible. The image quickly spread in WhatsApp messages and Facebook posts, which identified them — with no evidence — as the con artists who were abducting kids.
The crowd surrounding Luiz Aurelio de Paula's car.
Within hours, a crazed mob tracked down the pair, seeking to impose street justice. They beat both of them and set the man's car on fire.
Luckily, a friend recognized the woman, Pâmella Martins, a salesperson who was accompanied by her colleague, Luiz Aurelio de Paula. At the same time, the Araruama city police intervened. “It was God,” Martins told BuzzFeed News.
She doesn't use WhatsApp anymore.
Martins is in the minority: independent surveys indicate that between 80-92% of Brazilians with an internet connection use WhatsApp. It's the world's leading messaging app, with 1.2 billion users, of which approximately 100 million are in Brazil. According to a survey of Brazilian WhatsApp users commissioned by the company, 53% say they use the app to share “jokes, memes and funny things” and 35% share “news and items from newspapers, magazines, and other media.”
A Gazin customer shows a silica packet, which was inside the mattress, and claims it's “cemetery dirt.”
WhatsApp isn't the only platform plagued by viral misinformation, of course. But unlike Facebook and Twitter, where dubious stories can often be tracked and traced back to the accounts that originated them, the private, closed nature of messaging apps makes it impossible to know how many rumors are circulating.
One thing is clear: rumors like the one that ensnared Pâmella Martins and Luiz Aurelio de Paula have the potential to reach a lot of people on WhatsApp — and cause real damage to people's lives and livelihoods.
That's what happened to Mario Gazin. His mattress factory lost an order for 1 million units after an audio file shared on WhatsApp accused him of making a pact with Satan to sell more mattresses. The rumor was particularly popular among Evangelicals, who make up 29% of Brazil's population.
The claim was backed up by “evidence”: photos and videos showing the brand's mattresses had “cemetery dirt” in them, which would seal Gazin's pact with the underworld.
Vendors had already noticed the issue was affecting sales, but the canceled order was last straw for Gazin. “That's when I went after it, and found where [the rumor] had started,” he told BuzzFeed News. He recorded a video to repudiate the “Satanic connection” about three months after it began circulating in October 2015, and posted it on Facebook.
His explanation racked up 3 million views. “It helped a lot, and also strengthened our brand in some states which had until then been underperforming,” Gazin said.
Another fake news story circulating widely on WhatsApp was simply too good to be true. The rumor asserted that the Syrian-Lebanese Hospital, one of Brazil's leading medical facilities, had developed a vaccine for skin and kidney cancer. The hospital itself went public to deny the story that was circulating on WhatsApp.
The research does exist, but its results “show a limited degree of activity, temporarily benefiting only a small number of patients. To date, there is no evidence of a cure that can be attributed to these vaccines,” the hospital said in a statement.
“This type of rumor has always been around, but now it spreads faster,” Marcos Boulos, an infectious disease specialist and communications director at the Regional Council of Medicine of São Paulo, told BuzzFeed News.
“I've already been asked about several vaccines that don't exist,” he said. “I've had patients who brought in these rumors as a possible treatment alternative to what they're receiving.”
Even when people suffer physical and financial harm from lies circulating on WhatsApp, those originating the hoaxes are rarely punished.
WhatsApp encourages users to report “problematic content” on the platform, with the caveat that “to help ensure the safety, confidentiality and security of your messages, we generally do not have the contents of messages available to us, which limits our ability to verify the report and take action.” A factsheet in Portuguese provides tips on identifying dubious messages, but ultimately the company directs users to contact law enforcement if they believe someone is in danger.
Since WhatsApp's end-to-end encryption prevents the company from seeing messages, “our stance is really about building the tools and capabilities for people to manage [fake news] and understand it so that they can report it or potentially ban users, or things that are perpetuating this type of information,” co-founder Brian Acton told Times of India in February.
Pâmella Martins, the woman beaten in Araruama with her colleague Luiz Aurélio de Paula, believes there's little chance her assailants will be held accountable. She hopes that, at the very least, whoever cooked up that rumor about a kidnapping couple will answer for it in court.
The Facebook post that brought the angry mob into the streets has been deleted, as was the Facebook profile of the mother who first shared the photo of Luiz Aurélio de Paula's car. The police are trying to identify a man who recorded an audio file claiming to corroborate the fake story.
While Martins gave up on WhatsApp after her traumatic experience, Gazin, the mattress company owner, has embraced it after setting the record straight about his supposed Satanic connections. He now uses the app to provide customer support and even makes sales over WhatsApp. “I could never have imagined the turnaround that's happened,” Gazin said.
Infectious disease specialist Boulos, for his part, has a single diagnosis of the problem: “As long as WhatsApp stays the same, everyone will say whatever nonsense they want.”
This post was translated from Portuguese.