November 12, 2018

WhatsApp is paying a group of researchers to investigate how misinformation spreads on its platform.

On Monday afternoon, the Facebook-owned company announced that it’s awarding $50,000 each to 20 research projects from 11 countries, for a total of $1 million. The move came after a call for research about fake news stories, out-of-context photos and rumors on WhatsApp, which have plagued users in countries like Brazil and India — its largest markets.

“We recognize this issue presents a long-term challenge that must be met in partnership with others,” said Mrinalini Rao, lead researcher at WhatsApp, in a press release sent to Poynter. “These studies will help us build upon recent changes we have made within WhatsApp and support broad education campaigns to help keep people safe.”

The research projects were selected from more than 600 proposals and will investigate misinformation in four key areas, including digital literacy and election misinformation. Winning paper titles span from “Is correction fluid? How to make fact-checks on WhatsApp more effective” to “The use and abuse of WhatsApp in an African election: Nigeria 2019.” (See below for the full list.)

According to the press release, WhatsApp will not provide any user data to researchers, who are meeting at the company’s Menlo Park, California, headquarters this week for a workshop on how the platform works internally. The company will also not be involved in any of the study designs. Instead, the winning studies will rely on qualitative and quantitative surveys with the goal of publishing in peer-reviewed journals, WhatsApp told Poynter.

RELATED ARTICLE: WhatsApp on its misinformation problem: ‘Fact-checking is going to be essential’

“The goal of these research awards is to facilitate high-quality, external research on these topics by academics and experts who are in the countries where WhatsApp is frequently used and where there is relatively limited research on the topic,” the release reads. “We believe this is important in order to get unbiased insights that account for the social and cultural variation in how people use our product.”

The WhatsApp Misinformation and Social Science Research Awards were announced in July after criticism from the Indian government that the company wasn’t doing enough to stifle misinformation on the platform. That criticism came after several people were killed in vigilante mobs throughout the country after the spread of false rumors on WhatsApp.

The company has taken a series of small attempts to get a handle on the spread of fakery on the app. In early July, WhatsApp launched a feature that labels forwarded messages, which are frequently a vehicle for high-velocity rumors. Later that month, the company cut down on the number of groups that users can forward messages to.

But controlling the spread of misinformation on WhatsApp is notoriously hard given the platform’s encryption. Fact-checking projects have long employed an ad hoc process of debunking rumors on the app, and the only real quantitative research on the subject of different pieces of misinformation looked at public groups amid the presidential election in Brazil last month.

Rather than limiting misinformation itself, WhatsApp’s focus still remains on educating and empowering users, according to Monday’s press release. The platform is working with nonprofit organizations in both India and Brazil to train people how to spot misinformation and has done extensive public relations around the problem.

Here’s the full list of research papers WhatsApp accepted:

Information processing of problematic content

  • “Seeing is Believing: Is Video Modality More Powerful in Spreading Fake News?” by S. Shyam Sundar (The Pennsylvania State University) and P. N. Vasanti (Center for Media Studies, New Delhi)
  • “Information, Trust, Engagement, and WhatsApp in Mexico and Latin America” by Noam Lupu (Vanderbilt University), Alberto Simpser (ITAM) and Elizabeth J. Zechmeister (Vanderbilt)
  • “Is correction fluid? How to make fact-checks on WhatsApp more effective” by Edson C. Tandoc Jr. (Nanyang Technological University), Lee Chei Sian (NTU) and Sin Sei Ching Joanna (NTU)
  • “What's up with news? Fighting misinformation on WhatsApp: users' approach” by Pere Masip (University Ramon Llull), Carlos Ruiz (URL) and Jaume Suau (URL)
  • “Beyond the Forward: The Social Shaping of (Mis)information through WhatsApp” by Scott Campbell (University of Michigan), Joseph Bayer (Ohio State University), Lemi Baruh (Koc University), Ozan Kuru (University of Pennsylvania) and Richard Ling (Nanyang)

Digital literacy and misinformation

  • “HabLatam: Digital skills and misinformation among youth in Latin America” by Fabro Boaz Steibel (Institute for Technology and Society of Rio de Janeiro), Andrés Lombana (Harvard University), Debora Albu (ITS), Diego Cerqueira (ITS), Ezequiel Passerón (Faro Digital), Lionel Brossi (University of Chile), Marco Konopacki (ITS) and Thayane Guimarães (ITS)
  • “Digital literacy and impact of misinformation on emerging digital societies” by Vineet Kumar (Cyber Peace Foundation), Amrita Choudhary (CCAOI) and Anand Raje (Cyber Peace)
  • “WhatsApp Group and Digital Literacy Among Indonesian Women” by Novi Kurnia (Universitas Gadjah Mada) and Engelbertus Wendratama (PR2Media)
  • “Game-based interventions against the spread of misinformation” by Sander van der Linden (University of Cambridge), Jon Roozenbeek (Cambridge), Melisa Basol (Cambridge) and Osama Manzar (Digital Empowerment Foundation)

Election-related misinformation

  • “Information Sharing and Voting Behavior in the 2018 Brazilian Elections” by Patrícia Gonçalves da Conceição Rossini (Syracuse University), Erica Anita Baptista (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais), Jennifer Stromer-Galley (Syracuse) and Vanessa Veiga de Oliveira (UFMG)
  • “Social media and every day life in India” by Philippa Williams (Queen Mary University of London) and Lipika Kamra (O.P. Jindal Global University)
  • “Misinformation in Diverse Societies, Political Behavior & Good Governance” by Robert A Johns (University of Essex), Sayan Banerjee (Essex) and Srinjoy Bose (University of New South Wales)
  • “Use and Misuse WhatsApp Among Indonesian Campaigners and Users” by Kunto Adi Wibowo (Universitas Padjadjaran), Detta Rahmawan (UNPAD), Elizabeth Stoycheff (Wayne State University) and Justito Adiprasetio (UNPAD)
  • “Talking politics on WhatsApp: How Groups Afford Civil Cross-Cutting Talk” by Neta Kligler-Vilenchik (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
  • “The use and abuse of WhatsApp in an African election: Nigeria 2019” by Jonathan Fisher (University of Birmingham), Idayat Hassan (Centre for Democracy and Development, Abuja), Jamie Hitchen (AREA Consulting) and Nic Cheeseman (Birmingham)

Network effects and virality

  • “Values and arguments in the assimilation and propagation of disinformation” by Alexandre Brasil Carvalho da Fonseca (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro), Rebecca Nunn (UFRJ) and Tamiris Rizzo (UFRJ)
  • “How WhatsApp Users and Their Networks Coevolve in Misinformation Diffusion” by Narisong Huhe (University of Strathclyde) and Mark Shephard (Strathclyde)


  • “Misinformation Vulnerabilities among Elderly during Disease Outbreaks” by Santosh Vijaykumar (Northumbria University), Arun Nair (Health Systems Research India Initiative), Claudia Pagliari (University of Edinburgh), Venkat Chilukuri (Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology) and Yan Jin (University of Georgia)
  • “WhatsApp Vigilantes? WhatsApp messages and mob violence in India” by Shakuntala Banaji (London School of Economics and Political Science), Anushi Agrawal (Maraa), Nihal Passanha (Maraa) and Ramnath Bhat (LSE)
  • “Rumors to Rampage: When misinformation lead to mob violence in Indonesia” by Ihsan Ali-Fauzi (PUSAD Paramadina), Dyah Ayu Kartika (PUSAD Paramadina), Husni Mubarok (PUSAD Paramadina), M. Irsyad Rafsyadi (PUSAD Paramadina), Sana Jaffrey (PUSAD Paramadina) and Siswo Mulyartono (PUSAD Paramadina)

Update: This story has been updated with the names of the researchers who will oversee the winning projects.

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
Daniel Funke

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