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Data / Our veteran journalist on WhatsApp misinformation during India’s elections
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Shalini Joshi

Conversations on family WhatsApp groups in India can be exhausting. “Your bank has gone bust. Its share prices have dropped. Before you lose your life savings, find a reliable bank and transfer all your money.” My anxious family members shared this message on one of our many family WhatsApp groups.

The language and style of the message looked dubious to me. A few inquiries and one good fact-check relieved me: My bank was safe! Before I could share the good news on the family group, there was another forward that family members did not want anyone to miss. A big chocolate brand was gifting free chocolate hampers for Diwali! Before I could alert family members to not fall for the new hoax, there was mayhem on the group. The number of chocolate boxes purportedly being gifted increased with each message! So my little alert was buried in an avalanche of chocolate discussion among very excited young and old members of my family.

Studies have shown that trust in the person sharing a message on closed messaging apps like WhatsApp is a key indicator of the message being shared multiple times. It is because of this trust that even suspicious looking messages are spread. I often talk with friends about this; “What is the right strategy to call out family members sending fake news on WhatsApp groups?” “I can’t stop being Judge Judy on my family WhatsApp groups and people hate me for that.” “The last time I told my uncle his message was fake, he made a nasty comment and ignored me at the next family gathering.”

From first-hand experience running newsrooms, I can tell you that fact-checkers in India face similar concerns to my friends and I. I once met a media marketing manager who managed 60 WhatsApp groups. I wondered how he kept track of important messages. Shortly after that interaction, my newsroom went from print to digital, and I found myself on at least 40 WhatsApp groups that had media persons and other local professionals. The barrage of good morning messages did not stop until early evening. Group members were happy to share all kinds of unsolicited advice about personal or professional issues. Birthdays and anniversaries are big in India, and wishes, memes, songs on these occasions started from midnight and never ended! Amidst all this, fake information filtered into these groups as well. It was nearly impossible to keep track of conversations and information.

What is the solution to this? Will we just learn to live surrounded by a fog of noise and misinformation?

“There’s a lot of noise on WhatsApp. Ignoring it is not an option; this is the pulse of conversations around us today. Addressing it is a challenge because of the clutter.” My conversations with fact-checkers in India indicate high levels of exhaustion just from monitoring incoming messages on WhatsApp. Many of them work with limited resources and small teams. Managing a helpline on WhatsApp is not easy; from employment related inquiries to requests for setting up appointments with celebrities — fact-checkers have dealt with it all. There’s also video calls from users at all hours, pornographic content, trolls, these are also concerns flagged by fact-checkers in India.

So how do fact-checking initiatives cope with this? Well…

  • Some have had to discontinue their helplines
  • Others have to scroll through several messages to identify and prioritize the most relevant ones
  • Fact-checkers are also relying on other social media platforms to look for relevant information to address. “We can’t not address misinformation on WhatsApp”, the last fact-checker I met said.

Check is here to help!

Meedan’s digital tool, Check, has features that can provide solutions to messages on closed apps like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. I was introduced to Check last year when I learned about Verificado, a collaborative election reporting and fact-checking project in Mexico. In March this year I was actively using Check while working on Checkpoint, a research project around the 2019 Indian general election where Check integrated with the WhatsApp Business API.

As a Check journalist, there are many tasks that the tool simplified

  • I didn’t have to look at a WhatsApp number everyday to find relevant election related messages
  • It was possible for me to collaborate with other team members, even those members who were not physically present in the same space, because we all had access to the same feed
  • Finding important messages buried in a heap of junk also became easier because of Check
  • Keeping track of work and looking at patterns of misinformation was another task where different features of Check came in handy.

I saw the potential of Check to perform many more tasks to help fact-checkers, journalists, activists and researchers. As a team member leading Meedan’s work in the Asia Pacific region, I am now engaging with new partners and introducing Check to their workflows. I understand the concerns of journalists and fact-checkers well, and some of their concerns are now on the roadmap for Meedan’s team to improve Check and enhance its features. As a Meedan team member, I understand how Check can be positioned in the work of organizations and how its existing features can be applied effectively. It’s a dynamic relationship and it’s a good place to be in.

The Checklist–read misinformation news from around the world

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