The instant messaging app can be used to empower civil activism, as well as misinform people to undermine democracy, researchers find.

The instant messaging app WhatsApp is used to strengthen democratic participation but also spread fake news in Nigeria, according to new research by British and Nigerian academics.

Researchers from the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Centre in Abuja and the University of Birmingham looked at the ways in which the popular app would impact the Nigerial elections, which were held in March, 2019.

WhatsApp is the most popular messaging app in 40 African countries, including Nigeria, due to its low cost, encrypted messages, and the ability to easily share information with both individuals and groups. 

The study found several main characteristics, negative and positive, for the application when it came to the elections.

The first was its ability to reach mass audiences with political messaging, according to the report.

“Organisations...can send messages to tens of thousands of people at the touch of a button by forming hundreds of groups of 256 members,” the report said.

Different types of content shared via WhatsApp also had varying impacts depending on who they have been shared by, where they are targeted and how they are presented to the user. 

“The format, style, source and the content of a piece of information shared or received on WhatsApp all have a critical impact on how far they reach, and how far they are believed...pictures and videos are increasingly influential,” said researcher Idayat Hassan.

Most significantly, WhatsApp was used to spread disinformation, as well as countering it.

'Reduce risks'

One of the most notorious examples of fake news during the election was the story that incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari had died and replaced by a clone from Sudan. 

Buhari, who went on to win the contest, dismissed the story but it was nevertheless widely shared.

 Professor Nic Cheeseman, one of those involved in the study, said: “Social media platforms are both a threat to democracy and a way to strengthen it. WhatsApp is being used to spread ‘fake news’ on the one hand, and run fact-checking campaigns and election observation on the other.

“The challenge is to reduce risks without undermining the way that social media can strengthen accountability and promote inclusion.”

Researchers said that countering the threat faced by fake news required an increase in digital literacy and training social influencers to recognise questionable content and not spread it.

WhatsApp and other social media platforms have been blamed for the rise in fake news globally.

In India, the service has been used to spread rumours and rile up mobs that have ended up carrying out lynchings and other violent acts.

Source: TRT World