How people use what’s app makes fighting fake news that much harder
The BBC researched how a typical citizen in India, Kenya and Nigeria interacted with fake news recently.
“Participants gave the BBC extensive access to their phones over a seven-day period, allowing the researchers to examine the kinds of material they shared, whom they shared it with and how often.”
This is really extensive research, including in-depth in-person interviews in multiple native languages across cities and regions plus the analysis of news in English and local languages across social media.
The reports were long and worth reading in full, but here are some of the findings from the India report, which was written by Santanu Chakrabarti, head of the BBC World Service audiences research team, with senior researchers Lucile Stengel and Sapna Solanki. (The Kenya and Nigeria report is here.)
The boundaries between different types of news (information, analysis, opinion) has collapsed in India. “With the definition of news becoming expansive and all encompassing, we find that anything of importance to the citizen is now considered ‘news.’”
Data costs and the costs of smartphones have dropped significantly in the country, and as a result people report getting notifications as often as every 2 to 4 minutes.
We find our respondents inundated with messages on WhatsApp and Facebook. There is a near constant flurry of notifications and forwards throughout the day on their phones — encompassing from news organizations updates to a mindboggling variety of social messages (for example, “inspiring quotes” and “good morning” forwards, the latter of which seems to be a peculiarly Indian phenomenon, even the subject of discussion in the international media).
News providers — and there are tens of thousands of them in India — do not make it any easier, by sending regular, even incessant, notifications to phones.
The researchers found that the respondents’ default behavior was to keep notifications on and “we believe this behavior is quite widespread, for many respondents, when asked how they come to know about a news event, say that it’s ‘because of notifications’…In India, citizens actively seem to be privileging breadth of information over depth.” In a striking difference from America, the researches found that “Indians at this moment are not themselves articulating any kind of anxiety about dealing with the flood of information in their phones. If anything, they only see the positives of social media.”
This doesn’t mean that people haven’t found ways of dealing with the information deluge — they have. They often don’t open notifications at all, or they screen them and only open some from certain senders. One 27-year-old Mumbai man said: “I trust anything that a particular uncle of mine sends, he knows a lot about the world. There are my other uncles who stay in our hometown, I instantly mistrust anything they send. I don’t even open most of their forwards.”
In India images or visuals accompanied by captions are more popular as opposed to a collection of words on a website circulated in the form of a url.
Sourcing of the actual information is usually absent; rather, “the credibility of the sender is what gives legitimacy to the message. The original source, if at all present in the message itself, is often ignored or unnoticed in Facebook, or completely absent in WhatsApp.”
People are very careful about which messages they share in which WhatsApp groups. “Every group in WhatsApp has something that bonds the groups together — and makes it behave like a group,” the researchers write. WhatsApp group sharing is “very targeted” and “people are “acutely conscious of which messages belong in which groups.”
This suggests that the chances of a fake news message spreading on a nationwide scale on WhatsApp might actually be quite limited.
The defining feature of WhatsApp groups in India might then not be its reach or scale or speed of transmission of messages, but the fact that it is enabling homophily, or the drawing together of people in tight networks of like-mindedness.
The “working definition” of fake news in India is “largely limited to scams (all kinds of schemes, offers, and attempted cons)…or messages in the realm of the fantastical, which are just too incredible to believe,” the researchers write; beyond this, “our analysis suggests that people in India are not that concerned about fake news, no matter what they say in quantitative surveys.”
As part of the research process, respondents were exposed to a mix of real and fake news messages. And almost no respondent was adequately able to identify the fakes.
But one of the more concerning things that we observed happening, though, is that those some looked at legitimate news items or sources and judged them to be fake.
As a result, Facebook and WhatsApp’s attempts to curtail the spread of false information may not work in India at all, the researchers write.
For instance, WhatsApp, under government pressure, added a “Forwarded” tag in India to show that messages might have originally come from an unknown source. But “we observed that citizens for the most part had either not quite noticed the tag or if they had noticed they had misinterpreted what it meant. In what is possibly an isolated case, a respondent even thought that the tag was encouragement to further forward the message on!”
And Facebook warned Indian users not to spread fake news — but since, as noted above, most Indians think of fake news as being money-related scams, “citizens don’t think they themselves have a role to play in this.