Dr Patrícia Rossini and Dr Antonis Kalogeropoulos – written evidence (DAD0075)

 

Dr Patricia Rossini is a Derby Fellow in the Department of Communication and Media at the University of Liverpool. She is Principal Investigator on a project focused on misinformation, political discussion, and the use of mobile messaging applications funded by WhatsApp. She is also co-PI on a project funded by Twitter to develop metrics to assess conversational health, and on a project investigating the consequences of visual misinformation across 8 countries, funded by Facebook.

 

Dr Antonis Kalogeropoulos is a Lecturer in the Department of Communication and Media at the University of Liverpool and a Research Associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. For the past four years he has been working on the Digital News Report Survey, the largest survey of news consumption patterns in the world. His research has focused on the uses of social media and messaging applications for news purposes.

 

In respect to question 6 on the use of encrypted messaging and private groups presenting a challenge to the democratic process and question 10 on reducing the effects of misinformation on social media:

 

  1. Executive Summary

 

1.1.            Private messaging applications, such as WhatsApp, are increasingly popular worldwide. WhatsApp is the leading application in this segment, with 1.5 billion users globally. In the UK, WhatsApp is the leading messaging app, used by 58% of the population — behind Facebook and YouTube, both with 79% penetration[1].

1.2.            The popularity and the uses of these applications challenge democracy in important ways. This document focuses on two of them: threats to electoral integrity, and misinformation.

1.3.            The increased use of WhatsApp by elected representatives and political campaigns requires new regulation and more oversight, given the issues raised by elections in the Global South.

1.4.            Messaging apps are increasingly used by the public as news sources, which despite their benefits (users report higher engagement with news stories) could be highly problematic due to the lack of context and the high volume of misinformation.

1.5.            Our first set of recommendations focus on policy and regulations to ensure accountability of elected representatives and political campaigns using these encrypted messaging applications to communicate with the electorate.

1.6.            Our second set of recommendations provide regulators and social media platforms with solutions that could help alleviate the spread and the effects of misinformation as well as help users to navigate these spaces as news environments. Our recommendations include focusing on digital literacy campaigns, changes in the interface to facilitate the reporting of posts that spread misinformation, as well as providing more context to media and links shared.

 

  1. Private messaging applications and elections

 

2.1.            The increasing use of private messaging apps by elected representatives, political actors and political campaigns, pose several challenges to free and fair elections in Western democracies. These challenges arise because of encrypted messaging, which pose issues for accountability and oversight, combined with mass-scale reach.

2.2.            Recent elections in Brazil (2018), India, Indonesia, and Nigeria[2] (2019), have raised global attention to the weaponization of WhatsApp by disinformation campaigns — the action of malicious actors who mobilize users, usually through groups, to spread false or misleading information to their own contacts.

2.3.            Due to encryption, law enforcement in these countries faced several challenges during their elections. Issues ranged from coordinated disinformation operations in Brazil — which cannot be easily traced to political campaigns, defying electoral regulation — to acts of physical violence in India and Indonesia due to misinformation widely shared on WhatsApp.

2.4.            While WhatsApp has taken action in response to these issues by changing technical features[3], the cases of Brazil, India and Indonesia have demonstrated that the increasing use of encrypted messaging for non-private communication, such as political campaigning, requires oversight and regulation.

2.5.            The case of Cambridge Analytica and the investigation about foreign interference in the 2016 Presidential elections in the United States has raised attention to how targeted advertising on social media can be abused when there is little or no oversight on how these platforms are being used in election campaigns, which led to more calls for transparency and regulation (e.g. by the EU). However, this debate so far has not included private messaging applications.

2.6.            Considering the increasing shift towards private messaging, and Facebook's intention to encrypt more of its services, there is a pressing need for a discussion about ensuring transparency and public accountability in the context of encrypted messaging applications to protect free and fair elections, as well as to prevent foreign interference and weaponization of these applications in the next electoral cycles in the UK.

 

  1. Uses of private messaging applications and private groups for news and politics

 

3.1.            During the past years, we have observed a shift in how news audiences get their news from social media. Using results from an annual online survey in 12 countries (including the UK) we find that the use of Facebook for news has dropped from 42% in 2016 to 36% in 2019[4]. While the drop is small, it is the first time we see a decrease in the use of Facebook for news and it signals the end of constant growth for the use of Facebook for news.

3.2.            The use of WhatsApp for all purposes in these 12 countries has increased from 17% to 45% of the online population during the past five years, while its use for news has increased from 9% in 2014 to 16% in 2019.[5] The use of other messaging applications like Facebook Messenger, Telegram and Viber for news has also increased during the past few years.

3.3.            In early 2019, Mark Zuckerberg announced that they will prioritise private group conversations in the news feed.[6] Our research suggests that around half of Facebook users (51%) in nine countries are members of groups with people they do not know, whereas in the UK that number is the lowest with 12% of Facebook users being a member of a public group.

3.4.            Most Facebook users are members of groups related to their hobbies (22%) or their local communities (18%). Only 14% of Facebook users are members of groups related to news and politics, with the share being 8% for British Facebook users.

3.5.            Why are people moving from open networks such Facebook to private spaces? Findings from focus groups with news app users in the UK, the US, Germany and Brazil suggest that the size and the open nature of their Facebook’s network is the main reason[7].

3.6.            Over the years, the average Facebook user has accumulated many friends on Facebook ranging from extended family to co-workers and employers. Many users are finding it hard to talk about politics and current affairs in front of all their Facebook contacts and prefer to tailor their news related discussions to groups or individuals in private messages based on their political affiliation, or their interests[8]. This was particularly evident in polarized environments like the US where users would discuss news related to President Trump in a small groups with like-minded contacts.

 

  1. Messaging applications and the spread of misinformation

 

4.1.            The centrality of private messaging apps in today's social media landscape, and the shift to these platforms as sources of information, pose several challenges for 'regular users' to distinguish truthful from false information. Information circulating on WhatsApp is often decontextualized, and lack the visual and contextual cues that are helpful in establishing credibility (e.g. date, source, author, logo).

4.2.            It is possible that the lack of visual and contextual cues make it challenging for users to assess the quality and reliability of information. Instead, users might rely on personal credentials of their close peers to assess information[9].

4.3.            Our own research[10] suggests that "heavy" users of WhatsApp and Facebook for both political discussion and access to political information is strongly associated with dysfunctional information sharing — that is, engaging with and forwarding false or misleading information to others. We also find that using messaging applications for news is associated with believing in misinformation.

4.4.            Misinformation is a harder challenge to tackle in the context of private communication, as platforms have no control over the content that is shared and solutions such as Facebook's partnership with fact-checking entities to flag and de-prioritize false information are not possible because of end-to-end encryption.

4.5.            Because it is not possible to monitor content, solutions have so far focused on technical changes to curb virality, such as implementing forwarding limits, to limit the spread of misinformation.

 

  1. Benefits and challenges of the use of messaging apps for news

 

5.1.            The rise of social media for news consumption in the past years was consequential for news media organizations. There was a decrease in their brand equity[11], in their power in news distribution and in their revenue[12]. The move of the audience to private spaces could accelerate these trends.

5.2.            News organizations have less power on messaging applications than on social media where they can have their own page and choose which content to share and prioritize. Their names and logos are even less prominent in messaging applications spaces, contributing to increase confusion among users and affecting source recall.

5.3.            The move to private messaging applications for news consumption and discussion can also have positive implications for news users. First, since people feel more comfortable talking in small groups, they are more likely to break a “spiral of silence” and discuss political and current affairs with others[13].

5.4.            Messaging app news users claimed they are also more likely to read and discuss news stories they find in these spaces, compared to news found on Facebook — a platform where they see myriads of news stories[14].

5.5.            There are also indications that messaging app news users have a more diverse news diet since they tend to use more news stories on average on a given week than those who do not use them for news[15].

5.6.            However, despite the greater diversity in news sources the political discussions could be limited among like-minded individuals and could potentially lead to increases in political polarization.

5.7.            While research on political talk on social media has consistently challenged the perspective that people are exposed to "echo-chambers", conversations on WhatsApp are more likely to happen between close-knit contacts13, which tend to be less socially, economically, and politically diverse. The lack of diversity poses  greater risks of polarization and intolerance.

 

  1. Recommendations

 

6.1.            If campaigns are using these platforms, they must be regulated. Electoral regulations need to be updated to include oversight of private messaging applications, determining how it can be used by campaigns and elected representatives to communicate with the public.

6.2.            Given the encrypted nature of messages, regulations to grant accountability will require greater compliance of politicians and parties — for instance, to archive transcripts of campaign-related conversations, particularly with supporters, the general public, and in groups.

6.3.            While policies are needed to stop coordinated attacks and disinformation campaigns, it is imperative to remember that the root of the problem lies in people's challenges in assessing the credibility of information in high-choice environments. Public campaigns to promote digital literacy can be effective in instructing the public to check if the information is true before sharing it, as well as to raise awareness to the problem.

6.4.            The government can help debunk misinformation that circulates on private messaging apps by providing a fact-checking hotline using the Business API, an approach that has been implemented by the Brazilian Ministry of Health[16] to address health-related rumors. Messages that are fact-checked are uploaded to their website to raise awareness.

6.5.            Social media applications need to be more accountable and take action to curb misinformation, particularly in the context of encryption. Given what we already know about how these platforms facilitate the spread of misinformation, they need to be held accountable to provide means for mitigating the issue as they move towards more encryption[17].

6.6.            Applications like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger can provide more context to links shared. Messages that share YouTube videos or tweets have some metadata but messages with links in these applications lack any information. The inclusion of the publisher’s logos would help users navigate these platforms based on the perceived trustworthiness.

6.7.            Currently, WhatsApp users are not able to report specific posts as being misinformative but only report other users. Platform companies should facilitate the report function for forwarded messages, links and media content as well. Nudges aimed at individual messages would allow users to report messages forwarded by their friends.

 

 

 

7

 


[1]"WhatsApp has grown its user base by 20% in UK". https://www.messengerpeople.com/whatsapp-user-base-uk/

[2] Hitchen, J., Hassan, I., Fisher, J.; Cheeseman, N. (2019). WhatsApp and Nigeria's 2019 Elections: Mobilising the People, Protecting the Vote. Report: Centre for Democracy & Development. Available at: https://www.cddwestafrica.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/WHATSAPP-NIGERIA-ELECTION-2019.pdf 

[3] WhatsApp (February, 2019). Stopping Abuse: How WhatsApp Fights Bulk Messaging and Automated Behavior. Available at: https://scontent.whatsapp.net/v/t61/69510151_652112781951150_6923638360331596993_n.pdf/Stopping-Abuse-white-paper.pdf

[4] Newman, N., Fletcher, R., Kalogeropoulos A., & Nielsen, R. K. (2019). Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2019. Oxford, UK: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

[5] Newman, N., Fletcher, R., Kalogeropoulos A., & Nielsen, R. K. (2019). Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2019. Oxford, UK: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

[6] "A privacy-focused vision for social networking". Facebook, March 2019. https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2019/03/vision-for-social-networking/

[7] Kantar Media (2018). News in social media and messaging apps. Available at https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2018-09/KM%20RISJ%20News%20in%20social%20media%20and%20messaging%20apps%20report%20_0.pdf (accessed 25 August 2019).

Kalogeropoulos A. (2019). Who uses messaging applications for news, how and why? A cross-national analysis. Paper presented at the meeting of the International Communication Association, Washington DC, USA.

[8] Kalogeropoulos A. (2019). Who uses messaging applications for news, how and why? A cross-national analysis. Paper presented at the meeting of the International Communication Association, Washington DC, USA.

[9] Anspach, N. M. (2017). The New Personal Influence: How Our Facebook Friends Influence the News We Read. Political Communication, 34(4), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1080/10584609.2017.1316329

[10] Rossini, P., Stromer-Galley, J., Oliveira, V., Baptista, E. (2019) The Era of Mobile (Mis)information?How Citizens Engage With Online Misinformation on WhatsApp and Facebook in Brazil. Paper presented at the meeting at the International Journal of Press/Politics annual conference, Loughborough UK.

[11] Kalogeropoulos, A., Fletcher, R., & Nielsen, R. K. (2019). News brand attribution in distributed environments: Do people know where they get their news? New Media & Society, 21(3), 583-601.

[12] Nielsen, R, Cornia A. & Kalogeropoulos A. (2016) Challenges and opportunities for news media and journalism in an increasingly digital, mobile, and social media environment, Council of Europe Report, 2016.

[13] Valeriani, A., & Vaccari, C. (2017). Political talk on mobile instant messaging services: A comparative analysis of Germany, Italy, and the UK. Information, Communication & Society, 0(0), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2017.1350730

[14] Kalogeropoulos A. (2019). Who uses messaging applications for news, how and why? A cross-national analysis. Paper presented at the meeting of the International Communication Association 2019, Washington DC, USA.

[15] Kalogeropoulos A. (2019). Who uses messaging applications for news, how and why? A cross-national analysis. Paper presented at the meeting of the International Communication Association, Washington DC, USA.

[16] http://www.saude.gov.br/fakenews (in Portuguese)

[17] "A privacy-focused vision for social networking". Facebook, March 2019. https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2019/03/vision-for-social-networking/