Facebook gets a lot of attention for its fake news problem, but WhatsApp is no stranger to far-reaching viral hoaxes.
The private messaging platform, which hit 1 billion daily users last summer, has become a source of misinformation about everything from unions to storms. Since the platform is encrypted and groups are limited to 256 people, no one really knows when or where content goes viral — not even WhatsApp itself.
That has made it exceedingly difficult for fact-checkers to uncover and debunk WhatsApp hoaxes, developing innovative workarounds in order to at least partially address fakery on the platform. At the same time, since the service is popular among smartphone users for its small data footprint, outlets have started publishing and re-publishing guides to help users verify media by themselves without using a computer.
Adding to that collection, here is a list of tips and best practices for fact-checking organizations and social media users to uncover and debunk hoaxes on WhatsApp.
1. If you can, set up an institutional WhatsApp account to field potential hoaxes from users and provide them with related fact checks. Look to organizations like Chequeado, Boatos.org, Africa Check and La Silla Vacía for inspiration. From Kate Wilkinson, senior researcher at Africa Check:
“Once people have added us on WhatsApp, they’re actually more likely to just forward on the messages and viral hoaxes they get sent. Having that connection on WhatsApp sort of breaks down the step of them having to receive the message, either email it to us or go on Twitter and tweet it to us.”
2. Use your account to engage and develop a relationship with your readers. Consider creating broadcast lists of users that you can send fact checks to on a regular basis, who then might forward the articles along to people in their own private groups.
3. Consider turning your fact checks into images for distribution with links on WhatsApp. That should help your work be more shareable — just be sure to append a clear marker labeling the hoax as such.
4. Since images, memes and videos are some of the most popular pieces of content that circulate on WhatsApp, use the platform’s desktop version to receive potential hoaxes. Then use digital forensics tools like InVid and TinEye, as well as workflow solutions like Trello and Meedan’s Check platform, to verify or debunk them.
5. For audio messages, which are becoming increasingly easy to create on WhatsApp, consider using an audio editing software like Descript to transcribe and then search for keywords.
6. Isolate the topics that seem to produce the most misinformation in your given coverage area, whether that be politics, mass tragedies or natural disasters. Then, have your staff poll their various WhatsApp groups to see if anyone has seen anything questionable.
7. Slightly tweak your methodology to accommodate the fact that, on private messaging platforms, oftentimes you won’t be able to contact the source of the claim. From Wilkinson:
“When it comes to WhatsApp, it’s almost impossible to trace the source back to where it came from, so you don’t do that step. It can be a bit tricky — especially if you’re fact-checking a complex or complicated claim.”
8. Be sensitive — you’re fact-checking personal information that people shared in good faith, not misconstrued statements from politicians. Think about the tone and frame you use to debunk inaccurate information and share related fact checks with people on WhatsApp.
9. Be precise in your recommendations to WhatsApp users. A lot of hoaxes deal with personal safety as it relates to things like incoming storms or catastrophes, so make sure you debunk information in a way that won’t make people disregard future warnings.
“You need to be careful about giving black-and-white advisories about what to do if you think something isn’t true because in some cases it a matter of people’s personal safety and they have to make a decision about what they’re going to do,” Wilkinson said.
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1. Always be skeptical — don’t share something unless you know it to be true. Décodeurs has a great short guide on how to be a more cautious social media consumer.
2. Search keywords from suspicious WhatsApp messages. You will probably see verified articles appear first in search results, helping you determine the veracity of the message.
3. Try to debunk messages by yourself using mobile tools like Google’s reverse image search, TinEye and Fake Image Detector. Here’s a guide for using all three. For videos, try taking a screenshot and uploading it to one of these tools.
4. Identify the easiest way to reach fact-checking and media organizations. Oftentimes if you reach out directly via message or phone call, they will open up an inquiry into the content you want verified. Save the information in your phone so you can use it when needed.
5. Send any suspicious messages, memes, photos, videos or voice notes you receive to a fact-checking organization in your country. Once they publish a fact check, share the article in the original group where the content appeared.
6. Check the social media accounts of the institutions and companies involved in the potential hoax. Oftentimes they’ll attempt to debunk any misinformation by themselves.
7. You can help fact-checkers verify stories too. Here are a few tips from fact-checkers who regularly work with citizen journalists.
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