Up to four of every 10 viral messages shared in WhatsApp groups throughout last year’s presidential elections in Brazil contained information found to be false by fact-checkers, a study I conducted at Swansea University in Wales, United Kingdom, has found.
The research aims to shed some light on how misinformation spread online ahead of the election of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro on Oct. 28, 2018. Since the campaign, concerns have risen over whether the Facebook-owned private messaging app could be fueling the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories in Latin America’s largest democracy.
These findings form part of my final dissertation for the Erasmus Mundus Masters in Journalism Media and Globalisation, for which I analyzed the content of 11,957 messages shared in 296 politically oriented WhatsApp group chats throughout the campaign period.
Almost 39% of the messages analyzed in the study contained externally verified falsehoods, while only 3% contained factual information. The remaining 58% were not fact-checked by professionals.
The study also suggests that falsehoods tend to perform better than facts on WhatsApp: on average, messages containing misinformation reached 43% more groups than verified content.
“Online misinformation has become a common issue across the globe, and Brazil is no exception to that,” said Richard Thomas, a political communications specialist at Swansea University.
“Academia still struggles to understand the effects of social media on the democratic process, particularly when it comes to opaque platforms like WhatsApp.”
Launched in 2009, WhatsApp quickly gained popularity in Brazil. Of a population of 210 million, over 120 million are WhatsApp users. While the app facilitates personal communication and group chats between friends and relatives, it has also become a breeding ground for misinformation.
The app allows users to easily forward messages to multiple groups with a few clicks, creating a viral effect. The study indicates that as many as 78% of the groups were exposed to false information at least once throughout the campaign period, which lasted approximately two months beginning in August 2018.
In October of last year, a group of Brazilian social media experts wrote an op-ed in The New York Times urging WhatsApp developers to adopt a series of temporary measures that could potentially reduce the spread of fake news ahead of the elections.
“Brazilians should not be casting their own votes on the basis of false or distorted information,” they argued.
But the company said there was not enough time to adopt the proposed changes before Election Day, and refused to publicize data that could’ve elucidated the reach of false content on the platform.
Some of the experts’ recommendations, such as reducing the number of times a message can be forwarded by users, were later incorporated into the app.
Monika Bickert, Facebook’s vice president for product policy and counterterrorism, said in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper in May that she “reject(s) the notion that we are not doing a lot to counter misinformation.”
“We are not in the news business, we are in the social media business,” she added.
In Brazil, there are fears that WhatsApp could serve as a powerful tool for political actors seeking to promote online disinformation campaigns.
An investigation by one of the country’s largest newspapers, Folha de S.Paulo, revealed that Bolsonaro’s corporate allies had hired digital marketing agencies to send millions of messages smearing his rivals to WhatsApp accounts obtained from external databases. If true, this would have been a violation of Brazilian electoral laws, and Bolsonaro’s administration has repeatedly dismissed the revelations as “fake news.”
In my own research, I’ve found evidence suggesting that voters who exclusively accessed pro-Bolsonaro content on WhatsApp were up to 15 times more likely to be exposed to misinformation than other users ahead of the vote.
Due to sampling limitations, these findings cannot be generalized to represent or explain the behavior of all WhatsApp users in Brazil. Further research could complement or contradict the results of this dissertation.
“People think that social media promotes a democratic environment, where everyone can speak their minds,” said Caio Machado, a master’s candidate in social sciences of the internet at the University of Oxford.
“But there are major players who manage to capture these platforms for their own benefit … Democratic institutions are yet to adapt to this new reality.”
Daniel Avelar is a Brazilian journalist and candidate in the Erasmus Mundus MA in Journalism, Media and Globalization at Swansea University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @danielavelar_