WASHINGTON D.C. –
We all got that message in the family WhatsApp group. A new form of theft, an imminent natural disaster or a plot of a certain political party.
Although the application now warns when a message is forwarded, the chains are a common vehicle for the transmission of false news (or fake news). The popularity of the application, explained to the Voice of America, Desirée Yépez, Ecuadorian journalist Ecuador Check, amplifies the scope that false information can have.
According to data from the Messenger People portal, 60% of Latin Americans use WhatsApp to communicate, over other applications such as Facebook Messenger or even text messages.
“Whatsapp is what Hotmail chains were like at the time,” Yépez said, a “mass communication mechanism” that in the region has become a “determinant of information” channel.
False content that is disseminated through WhatsApp can be texts, videos and even audios. However, Yepez, whose medium is dedicated to checking information, has identified that they are usually unspecific messages that do not define when the event mentioned occurred or will occur. In this way, the same message can be replicated in several countries.
They seek, in general, to create “chaos and destabilization” and are exacerbated in “electoral processes and natural disasters,” the journalist said.
Those who have used these platforms the most to send false news and misinform are government agencies and political parties in some countries, according to a study by the University of Oxford. The Computational Propaganda Research Project found that WhatsApp was the main platform used for the dissemination of fake news in Brazil, Ecuador and Mexico in 2017.
Social networks are “particularly effective in reaching a large number of people while at the same time targeting individuals with personalized messages,” the researchers explain. WhatsApp is a perfect combination of both: it allows you to forward messages -although now in a limited way- and is at the same time a “very intimate” platform, said Aimee Rinehart of First Draft News, an NGO dedicated to combating online disinformation
The messages arrive, generally, through “people you know, when you know someone you trust him or her more,” continued Rinehart, who worked at Comprova, an information check project created for the presidential elections in Brazil. last year.
Unlike Twitter or Facebook, WhatsApp does not work with an algorithm that suggests content to users. It is not a social network but a messaging application and people read everything that comes to the platform. Also, Rinehart explained, the content comes out of context – a video or a photo without text – which leaves a lot of room for interpretation.
In Mexico or Colombia there have been extreme cases in which false information spread through WhatsApp have resulted in deaths by lynching. In November of last year, for example, two men were burned alive by a crowd in San Vicente del Boquerón, Puebla, because the inhabitants thought they were alleged kidnappers of minors who had been warned in a WhatsApp chain .
In addition to the message forwarding limit – now the same message can only be redirected five times – WhatsApp also decided to mark the forwarded messages to control the dissemination of the fake news.
However, these rules do not apply to all countries, Rinehart explained, which means that contents can be broadcast in Brazil, for example, from a telephone in the United States. “The application needs to work in the same way in India, the United States, Brazil …”, said the communicator.
For Yépez WhatsApp attempts do not respond to a “comprehensive strategy” against false news. “It is not a macro strategy that responds to the education of content on the Internet,” said the journalist, “if you do not join a strategy of the big media on the Internet you can be isolated.”
While a solution is reached by the platforms, Yépez said, the media have a “responsibility to educate” their audiences on how to approach information on the Internet.
Ecuador Check, for example, enabled a WhatsApp line so that citizens can send the chains that reach them and the medium check whether it is a truthful information or not.Usually, the fake news, have “altered images, are poorly written, contain audios trick, misspellings and emphasize improbable facts.”
Users can also use tools such as reverse search in Google Images: uploading the file of the photo that has arrived by WhatsApp and see if in the results there is an article of a reliable media that has the same information.
Rinehart recommends listening to instinct: “If something is too good to be true or goes with my beliefs” it is better to distrust.