“What’s Crap on WhatsApp,” a voice note podcast produced by fact-checking organization Africa Check and podcast company Volume, has gained a dedicated following during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the first six months of 2020, subscriptions to the service sent directly to users through WhatsApp grew by 215%, from 1,718 in January to 5,413 in June. That’s almost 10 times the 22% growth from the previous six-month period.
The five-to-seven-minute podcast sent on directly to subscribers on WhatsApp summarizes the latest viral rumors submitted to Africa Check for evaluation. Twice a month Africa Check’s chief deputy editor Kate Wilkinson and Volume CEO Paul McNally break down each rumor and let their listeners know what’s crap and what isn’t.
“‘What’s Crap’ gives us a lot more freedom and listeners to the show will know that it’s a lot more fun. It’s a lot more relaxed,” Wilkinson said.
In June 2019, as part of the Fact Forward Innovation Fund, the International Fact-Checking Network awarded Africa Check a $50,000 grant to develop the podcast. In addition to a report detailing the successes of the podcast during the one-year grant period, Africa Check produced a handbook in English, French, and Spanish to help other fact-checking organizations create similar voice note podcasts.
“The beauty of the idea of What’s Crap on WhatsApp is that it’s incredibly easy for anyone to do. It’s 100% manual, it pretty much is a staff member with a phone and a laptop, adding people, logging submissions, chatting,” Wilkinson said. “You can start doing this in an hour if you want to.”
Wilkinson acknowledged the show’s popularity has had some drawbacks. During the peak of the pandemic, the dedicated phone used to distribute the program received almost 2,000 subscription requests per month, and 800 messages from listeners per day. Because of South Africa’s stay-at-home-order during the pandemic, this all had to be managed by a single staff member.
“In a way you, you’ve created something so great, and it got so big, and suddenly it just becomes a bit unwieldy, but we’re managing at the moment,” Wilkinson said.
Though WhatsApp’s encrypted messaging framework limits the kinds of data Africa Check and Volume can use to evaluate the success of the program, Wilkinson said the anecdotal feedback from the show’s listeners has been predominantly positive.
“We are constantly surprised by how nice people are to us on WhatsApp, how chatty people are, that they thank us, that they tell us what an impact it’s having in their lives,” she said attributing this to the communal nature of friends and family sharing information on the app.
McNally was also positive about the show’s growth, but said more research is needed to get the full picture. WhatsApp does not show whether subscribers are listening to the podcast, or if they are forwarding it to family and friends.
“On the one hand, it could be that we send it out to like almost 6,000 people and no one’s listening to it. On the other hand, it could be that we send it to 6,000 people, and that’s only the beginning … like everyone’s forwarding it 10 times,” McNally said. Both he and Wilkinson said they are looking for other ways to measure the show’s impact.
“We haven’t really been able to dig deep into the idea of if it’s really got the potential to change people’s behavior around how they view misinformation,” McNally said. He added that one of the show’s goals was to give listeners a tool to have constructive conversations with friends and family about misinformation.
“Not to start an argument, don’t lose them as a friend, but send them the show, and see what they think,” he said. “That’s the kind of the ideal, and hopefully we’re gonna get some data around if that’s really happening and how much that’s really working.”