Misinformation in WhatsApp seems like a black hole, especially in Africa, where health issues make falsehoods even scarier.
Since June 2019, when the International Fact-Checking Network awarded a $50,000 grant to Africa Check to develop “What’s Crap on WhatsApp?,” a voice note show specially designed to be shared on the private message app, about 1,600 people have subscribed to the “appcast,” which totals six episodes. In total, they have heard 25 falsehoods being debunked, 10 of them related to health issues.
The 5- minute long voice note show is available on Africa Check’s website, via Google podcast, Spotify and Apple podcast.
In July, Africa Check made it clear that a specific popular brand of juices sold in South Africa was not poisoned. In September, the group emphasized that children were not being tricked into drinking Coke mixed with cough medicine. And in November, the team explained that apricot seeds absolutely cannot kill cancer cells.
In between, “What’s Crap on WhatsApp?’’ identified as a hoax that the world’s smallest poisonous snake has found in bell peppers, and that South African school kids would not get condoms with their back-to-school stationery in 2020.
Some explanatory articles were also heard in “What’s Crap on WhatsApp?”. The fact-checking team used the appcast, for example, to explain topics like the “easiest way to do a pregnancy test,” because, in South Africa, some people were sharing that women could use salt or white toothpaste to do so. Not true.
The episode launched Sept.r 4, on the other hand, was entirely dedicated to one topic: xenophobic violence. By that time, four viral images were being falsely spread in the country showing “aggression cases against foreigners.” The images, however, were either old or not taken in South Africa, demonstrating that the appcast can be about one topic only and still be effective.
Kate Wilkinson, Africa Check’s deputy chief editor, told the IFCN that “What’s Crap on WhatsApp?” proves that people know there is mis/disinformation on WhatsApp and shows they also want to do something about it.
“People feel helpless when they received dodgy messages from their friends and family. The show has provided them with an outlet for this frustration,” she said. “There is also a huge demand for short and fast fact-checking. Setting the facts straight doesn’t always need to be a long and complicated operation.”
Paul McNally, who is the co-founder of Volume, Africa Check’s partner in the project, said the biggest challenge ahead is to keep the show fresh and relevant.
“We don’t want to disrupt the format and the expectations of the listeners to a huge extent, but we do want to introduce exciting new elements. These could include different ways for listeners to interact with us and give feedback over WhatsApp (beyond sending us voice notes and emojis). Or by introducing different voices into the show, particularly celebrities with large social media followings.”
Wilkinson, on the other hand, said she would like to find a way to track WhatsApp’s analytics. She knows the numbers can still grow.
“We know how many people we send the show to, but not the number that actually listened to it or forwarded it on.”
Both project leaders are eager to enhance subscribers’ experience and build a bigger community. McNally even has an idea:
“We have talked about doing a limited series that tracks the power and potency of one hoax: how it spreads, the damage it does and how it is debunked. This would be a narrative arc over several episodes. The challenge will be how one can introduce that type of content and not disrupt what people have come to know and love about the ‘What’s Crap on WhatsApp?’ format.”
The grant given by the IFCN covers Africa Check’s work until June 2020.
Cristina Tardáguila is the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network and the founder of Agência Lupa. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.