Politics (on WhatsApp) is dynamic


August, 2018 

Last April, a WhatsApp chain began circulating that warned: Ivan Duque was going to eliminate the pension transfer. It consisted of a photo accompanied by a poorly written text.

‘Chain’ false about Iván Duque.

The piece reached on one of the rival campaigns. “Someone said that they had reviewed that ‘chain’ and that it was false. But some people said that we needed to capitalize on the rumor anyway,” explained one source. Then, that campaign did some “touch up” work on the message: they put fragments of video, a context that seemed plausible and some gloomy music. And they relaunched it on social media and WhatsApp groups. The Duque campaign quickly went out to deny the message. His rivals had achieved their goal: to get him off his script and put him on the defensive.

This example is part of the Linterna Verde report we present today: “Politics (on WhatsApp) is dynamic. Disinformation and political ‘chains’ in Colombia.”

In the context of the presidential elections, we carried out an investigation to understand how political content circulates on WhatsApp. It seemed clear that this platform had a role in the dissemination of political disinformation. But how? What role did the campaigns play? How much did the ‘chains’ impact the everyday user?

Although we cannot generalize and say that all campaigns took actions to insert problematic content into WhatsApp, their very infrastructure and operations offer powerful incentives to be a source of or to strengthen disinformation. Decentralized work schemes through volunteers and influencers, the multiplicity of groups and the digital content-sharing environment are factors that influence this problem.

WhatsApp is just one of the platforms where we exchange content; it is complementary and parallel to open social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. To that extent, it is not necessarily the beginning or end of the ‘fake chains.’ On the other hand, on this platform users with defined interests (campaign advisors, influencers, volunteers) and users whose commitment is occasional or intermittent (the majority of citizens) cross paths. The dissemination of disinformation is not simply the result of coordination and planning. Spontaneous reactions and individual decisions are decisive.

Video version of the ‘chain’ false about Iván Duque.

Despite the apparent strength of the ‘chains,’ in our research we found that the majority of users are reluctant to share political content on WhatsApp with friends, family and acquaintances. On the one hand, politics is an intimate issue that is often discussed in close social circles. On the other hand, there is distrust and lack of credibility regarding the content that circulates on that platform.

The impact of technology cannot be evaluated in a laboratory. To understand it, it is necessary to observe its social incorporation; to understand the ways of interacting and the relationship with social contexts. WhatsApp is no exception. Although it is a platform that is conductive to the invisible dissemination of anonymous content, it is not, in and of itself, the problem of ‘false news.’

We propose three public policy discussions related to this topic: (i) it is important to offer mobile services data packages that do not discourage searching for external content using applications and services other than WhatsApp (known as zero-rating); (ii) we should not use the problem of ‘chains’ to promote proposals that violate user privacy and involve the use of surveillance and data collection schemes, and (iii) it is important to develop digital literacy programs to help people critically understand the content, spaces and types of interaction that devices and platforms provide.

Our report is just the first step for further research on the use of WhatsApp in building the digital public debate.

This text was originally published on the Silla Vacia’s Innovation Network.

Watch our presentation of the report on “Fridays on La Silla’ from August 3, 2018.