WhatsApp will fund research into fake news on the heels of receiving global backlash for being a catalyst towards the spread of fake news and misinformation. It will fund 20 research projects from 11 countries, including India, Brazil, Nigeria and focus on 5 themes including digital literacy and election-related misinformation. Poynter reports that the company will award a grant of $50,000 for each project, and a total of $1 million.

  • In a statement, WhatsApp acknowledged that the impact of misinformation is a “long-term challenge”.
  • It said that the research is focused on countries where WhatsApp is frequently used and where research on fake news is limited.
  • The company will now conduct a workshop at its headquarters for all the researchers, where it will “educate” them on the app, for their research “to be most effective”.
  • The research will not involve use of user data and are the researchers are independent of WhatsApp.

With regard to India, which is its largest market, WhatsApp has roped in academics, civil society organisations and individual researchers, to carry out research on misinformation in or related to elections, mob violence, disease outbreaks, political conversation, with an overarching research into the nature of and factors that influence spread of fake news.

Research topics based in India

  1. Seeing is Believing: Is Video Modality More Powerful in Spreading Fake News? – This will examine how different media – text, audio, and video – are vulnerable to misinformation.
  2. Digital literacy and impact of misinformation on emerging digital societies – This study will examine how vulnerability to fake news is influenced by socioeconomic, demographic, or geographical factors. It will also look at patterns in forwarding particular types of information across 9 states in India.
  3. Social media and every day life in India – This will examine the role of WhatsApp in day-to-day political conversations in India in the context of India’s social media ecosystem.
  4. Misinformation in Diverse Societies, Political Behavior & Good Governance –  Involves a field experiment with WhatsApp and surveys in India and Afghanistan to study relation between misinformation and “public opinion on ethnic relations and public policy choices.”
  5. Misinformation Vulnerabilities among Elderly during Disease Outbreaks – This study will be based out of Bangalore and look at identifying possible solutions to misinformation during infectious disease outbreaks.
  6. WhatsApp Vigilantes? WhatsApp messages and mob violence in India – It will examine how WhatsApp users think of solutions to ‘WhatsApp lynchings’ over the past year. It will include survey, focus groups and interviews with those who receive misinformation via WhatsApp in 4 large Indian states (unspecified).

Details about what the research will examine and its authors here.

Nationalism drives fake news in India: BBC study

A BBC study into fake news on WhatsApp in India found that facts were less important to some than the “emotional desire to bolster national identity.” Among other things, the study found that a large chunk of content on WhatsApp is related to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The research studied how 80 participants (across 3 countries including India) shared information on their phones via WhatsApp and Facebook, and their media consumption behaviour. Some of their findings were:

  • Social media analysis says that right-wing networks are much more organised than left leaning networks.
  • There was also an overlap of fake news sources on Twitter and support networks of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
  • Distrust of mainstream news organisation pushed people to spread information from alternative sources, without attempting to verify it.
  • People believed that they were helping to spread the real story.
  • People were also overly confident in their ability to identify fake news.

A large chunk of content related to current affairs was related to Prime Minister Modi, demonetisation or related to business and economy.

WhatsApp in damage control mode in India

In August, WhatsApp CEO Chris Daniels met with the Union Minister for Electronics and IT, RS Prasad who said that WhatsApp needs to have a physical presence in India. Ever since, WhatsApp has been in damage control mode. It collaborated with Jio to run awareness campaigns against misinformation in 10 cities in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan and others. It also appointed a US-based grievance officer Komal Lahiri for India.