WhatsApp study examines spread of fake news

WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging app, is taking part in a study led by Northumbria University, UK, which examines how adults use messaging apps to spread fake news.

WhatsApp is now used by over 1.5 billion across 180 countries and lets people not only exchange text, but also links, videos and photos.

Social media channels have long come under fire for the misinformation they allow people to spread between their networks. In an effort to tackle fake news, Facebook has previously launched the WhatsApp Research Awards for Social Science and Misinformation, which provide funding for researchers to conduct studies to examine the issue.

Dr Santosh Vijaykumar, who leads the project at Northumbria’s Department of Psychology explained:

“My specific interest in WhatsApp really emerges from how consistently it has been used as a catalyst to spread misinformation related to infectious diseases. This is a serious problem especially in Brazil and India, two countries which are at high risk of infectious disease outbreaks, which are also among WhatsApp’s biggest markets.”

He cites a recent case of the Nipah Virus in India where people spread the message that the virus was a government conspiracy making it harder for public health teams to reach them.

Misinformation on the app affects older adults more than younger ones, according to previous psychology research.

“This means that older adults are especially vulnerable to believing information that they are presented with,” adds Vijaykumar.

As part of the study, the team plans to “analyse media coverage, interview health officials, and conduct experiments involving older adults and their children”.

WhatsApp’s lead researcher Mrinalini Rao added:

“WhatsApp is looking forward to working with the research team from Northumbria University and its partners. The consequences of misinformation are real and we know this is a long-term challenge that requires action from civil society, government, and technology companies. The independent research conducted by Northumbria University will make a meaningful contribution to how we build WhatsApp for the years to come.”

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