Written by J.D. Ross (iSchool News Page)

A pair of researchers from the Center for Computational and Data Science (CCDS) at the School of Information Studies (iSchool) have received a research award from the Facebook-owned WhatsApp messaging service to study the issues of misinformation transmitted over the platform.

Postdoctoral researcher Patricia Rossini (top) and Professor Jennifer Stromer-Galley will study election related misinformation shared on WhatsApp.

Postdoctoral researcher Patricia Rossini and Professor Jennifer Stromer-Galley were selected to examine election related misinformation, specifically focusing on information sharing, political engagement, and discussion in the 2018 Brazilian elections. Rossini serves as principal investigator on the award.

WhatsApp can be a powerful medium for political discourse and engagement. But at the same time, it can also be misused to share political information that is inaccurate or inflammatory. The company is interested in understanding this space both from the perspective of political actors and voters as well as understanding how they might take steps to prevent the misuse of the platform in electoral processes.

The goal of the WhatsApp Misinformation and Social Science Research Awards is to facilitate high quality, external research around the topics of misinformation by academics and experts who are in the countries where WhatsApp is frequently used and where there is relatively limited research on the topic.

WhatsApp received nearly 600 proposals, and selected 20 research teams to examine issues that include problematic content; digital literacy and misinformation; election-related misinformation; and network effects and virality. Award recipients span the globe including Brazil, India, Indonesia, Israel, Mexico, Netherlands, Nigeria, Singapore, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

All of the studies funded by WhatsApp will comply with the ethics and academic review processes set forth by the institutions receiving the awards, and will not involve the use of any WhatsApp user data.

Joining the CCDS researchers on this project are two academics from Brazil’s Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG), Erica Anita Baptista and Vanessa Veiga de Oliveira.

The research team’s mixed methods study aims to understand two interconnected issues. First being the potential impact of the use of WhatsApp by political campaigns and the ways users experience the platform and receive political information. Second, the extent to which WhatsApp users actively engage and share content related to the elections within their peer groups and how they evaluate the credibility and the reliability of political information circulating through the platform.

We want to figure out the different and creative ways that people are using WhatsApp for political activities, both for sharing of news and information around political issues as well as discussion of these topics,” said Rossini. “We’ve conducted quite a bit of social media research, but up to this point that research has only looked at public sites like Facebook and Twitter, where a user’s audience is mostly public.”

With WhatsApp, users have a better understanding of their audience and who they are messaging and sharing information with.

“It’s a private channel, a different kind of social media where most users know exactly who their audience is,” Rossini explained. “And we think that people will behave differently in these private spaces. We can expect that people might feel more comfortable talking with an audience that they are familiar with, or who they share the same views with.”

Rossini and her team are also interested in how WhatsApp users put the information they receive via the platform into context.

“Users on WhatsApp don’t tend to share a lot of links, so there’s very little context that comes when you receive a message,” she said. “We would like to find out how users understand what they receive, how they determine whether to trust the sender of the information, and what motivates them to forward information to other individuals or groups.”

“Our end goal is to be able to better understand how people use WhatsApp for political purposes, and then to help WhatsApp better understand the affordances these users need to better use the platform, as well as to understand the extent to which users engage with misinformation,” said Rossini.

“WhatsApp is looking forward to working with the research team from the iSchool and UFMG,” said Mrinalini Rao, lead researcher on the WhatsApp Research Team. “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 these iSchool and UFMG faculty members will make a meaningful contribution to how we build WhatsApp for the years to come.”