WhatsApp in this campaign: little verification and little conversation

As part of a collaboration with Linterna Verde, the recent Polymetric Poll included a module dedicated to analyzing the use of WhatsApp in the electoral context. (See data sheet)..

Less than two weeks from the local elections, the results of this survey – applied in Barranquilla, Bogota, Cali and Medellin – question WhatsApp’s image as the “big black box” of political disinformation. Although a full report on the topic will be published in November, here we outline four key findings:*

● People receive less political information through WhatsApp than we thought

Based on the survey, 71.1% of the public say they use WhatsApp, and only 21.8% of those users say they have received messages with political content related to local and regional elections. This means that 15% of Colombians in these urban centers have received political content through WhatsApp during the current election campaign season.

In that last figure, the age of the person in question played a role. While the majority (two-thirds) of political information consumed continues to come from television, 40.4% of young people between the ages of 18 and 25 receive political information through digital and social media, which includes WhatsApp.

● Three facilitators of disinformation – chains, distribution of content across groups and message bombing – do not seem to be very present in these elections

Those who answered the survey said that during this campaign, they received messages with political content between 2 and 5 times, and 45% said they received them individually and not through groups. This indicates that WhatsApp is not as viral as is commonly thought. The results differ from the study that Linterna Verde conducted on this issue during the 2018 presidential elections: groups and chains seem to have lost strength.

Still, the political information that is received is not verified

After analyzing the data collected, a disturbing fact is obvious: a little more than two weeks before election day, 73% of people who say they have received information on political and electoral content through WhatsApp do not confirm the truthfulness or validity of that information. This raises an alarm for this last stage of the campaign.

Returning to the conclusions from the 2018 Linterna Verde report Politics (on WhatsApp) is Dynamic, Polymetric data for these cities shows that this messaging platform is just another means of distributing political information, not even a dominant one, and it is important to understand it as such when we talk about its power to amplify fake news and disinformation.

Although the results focus on metropolitan areas, which opens the question of the variation in data at the rural level, the message is to continue applying the fact-checking to our beliefs about the impact of this type of application on voting intentions. We should not forget that WhatsApp is also in constant competition to capture the limited time that consumers of information are willing to invest in it, along with other social networks such as Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, and even traditional media.

* This data is part of the quantitative phase of a broader investigation into how WhatsApp is transforming political communication. This will be published in November jointly by Linterna Verde and other researchers, including Nicolás Torres-Echeverry of the University of Chicago and Oscar Agudelo of the Editorial Board.

* Charts based on the Polymetric Survey from October 17.

* Photo credit: Christian Wiediger on Unsplash.