Sri Lankans reshare old hoax about 'malware videos spreading on WhatsApp'

·2 min read

A Sinhala-language message has circulated repeatedly in Sri Lanka on Facebook that warns users against opening two malware videos purportedly being shared on WhatsApp. The message -- shared online in the island nation since at least 2020 -- claims that if users open the videos, their phones will be hacked. This is false, according to Meta, which owns WhatsApp and Facebook. A Sri Lankan cybersecurity expert told AFP the hoax message had circulated globally in other languages since at least 2017.

The message was shared in this Facebook post published on August 30, 2022.

The Sinhala-language text translates to English as: "Dear friends, this is a warning that was aired on BBC radio this morning: If you are a WhatsApp user, please pay attention. A video titled 'Martinelli' will be released tomorrow. Please don't open it - it will hack your phone and the impact cannot be reversed.

"Also, if you receive a message about updating WhatsApp, do not click RUN. Please also warn your friends to not open a video titled the 'Pope's dance'. That video will change the combinations in your phone. Be careful because it is very dangerous".

Screenshot of the Facebook post captured on September 1, 2022

An identical message was shared repeatedly on Facebook here, as well as on WhatsApp.

The claim has circulated in Sri Lanka since at least 2020 as seen here.

The claim, however, is false.

Hoax message

In response to a query from AFP, a Meta spokesperson said WhatsApp users should report such messages on the app and avoid clicking suspicious links.

"We strongly encourage people to never tap unusual or suspicious links," a spokesperson said. "We also encourage people to report such messages as soon as possible so that we can take action."

Cybersecurity consultant Asela Waidyalankara told AFP the message was a hoax that has been circulating globally since at least 2017.

"The claims on dangers of opening a video titled 'Martinelli' and another titled 'The Pope's Dance' have been circulating in various parts of the world since at least 2017," he said.

"Although there are ways to spread malware using a video, the cybersecurity fraternity has not yet come across any videos with the titles highlighted in the claim, that are shared via WhatsApp with the ability to hack or infect users' phones. This is a hoax."

He warned users not to forward messages they have not verified.

"It's best not to forward unverified claims as we do not know agendas of whom we would be facilitating by doing so," Waidyalankara warned.

A keyword search on Google also indicated the claim about the 'Martinelli' video has been shared since at least 2017 as seen in this tweet published by the official account for the Spanish Police Department on July 29, 2017.

"This message circulating via WhatsApp about the Martinelli video is fake. Stop sharing it," the tweet reads.

AFP previously debunked a similar claim after it circulated online in Pakistan.