A matter of fact: New study shows how Indians respond to (mis)information on WhatsApp
Whilst user generated content or social media has had its benefits on access to information as well as quality and diversity in perspectives, it has its downsides too. In particular, the growing malaise of fake news or unqualified content, whether deliberately planted by vested interests or otherwise. And the ease of forwarding a whatsapp message or retweeting makes it easy for such false content to go viral. A new study suggests a means to curb such misinformation, primarily user driven corrections.
“Sumitra Badrinathan from the University of Pennsylvania, Simon Chauchard from Leiden University, and DJ Flynn from IE University recently conducted a study titled “I Don’t Think That’s True, Bro!” An Experiment on Fact-checking WhatsApp Rumors in India, where they investigated the role of users in fact-checking misinformation and disinformation on WhatsApp.
The study revealed that corrections to potentially misleading information on WhatsApp threads can minimise belief in the content of such messages, even when such corrections are low on sophistication, i.e. without a source, and the identity of the user is unknown.
The researchers recommended that WhatsApp create a “button” to easily express their doubts over claims made in the app, which would minimse the efforts required by users to report a message and would thus, effectively slow down the dissemination of such messages.
“Our findings suggest that though user-driven corrections work, merely signaling a doubt about a claim (regardless of how detailed this signal is) may go a long way in reducing misinformation,” Badrinathan said in a tweet.
The study was conducted by recruiting over 5,000 Hindi speakers through Facebook, who were exposed to nine different WhatsApp threads. These threads – screenshot of a WhatsApp conversation – included a claim made by an unknown users using pro-ruling party and anti-ruling party sources, which was followed by a response by another user. The response was varied from a simple “thank you” – control condition with no correction – to expressing simple disbelief, to fact checking the claim using a source.
The subject of the claim in the nine threads were varied from politics to health to sports, while the fact-checks by the respondent in the thread used one of these five sources: AltNews, VishwasNews, Times of India, Facebook and WhatsApp.
Existing literature on people’s response to fact-checking initiatives in countries like the United States have found that motivated reasoning and partisanship are highly influential factors that contribute to the acceptance of a fact-check.
However, in the context of WhatsApp users in India, the study found that motivated reasoning and partisanship had less of a role to play for users in their interaction with the claim and the fact-check.
It also found that the sophistication of the message, cited with fact-checks by media organisations, had little to do with people believing in the fact-check by the responding user. Rather, an expression of doubt or a counter argument by a peer in a WhatsApp group was enough to lower the belief in the initial claim.”