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The Indians Who Are Trying to Answer WhatsApp’s Fake News Problem

The Quint speaks to the Indians who have received grants from WhatsApp to study misinformation and fake news.

4 min read

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At over 200 million users, India is WhatsApp’s largest market in the world. The penetration and adoption of the messaging platform has often resulted in several incidents of violence and deaths that have been fuelled by the rumours circulating on WhatsApp.

Earlier this month, the messaging-app announced a research grant of $1 million to twenty teams from eleven countries to investigate the problem of fake news, misinformation and safety issues on the platform. Several Indians are part of teams that have been awarded the grant of $50,000 each. 

Localised fake news reports, which have triggered lynchings from Maharashtra to Assam, is among the most serious issues for the Facebook-owned messaging app.

According to WhatsApp, it had received over 600 proposals to study misinformation from India, Brazil, Indonesia, Israel, Mexico, Netherlands, Nigeria, Singapore, Spain, United Kingdom, and the United States.

So, who are the Indian winners of the grant ?

The Quint spoke with five winners who explained why India presents unique challenges and the ways in which misinformation can be tackled.


Amrita Chaudhury (Director and President, CCAOI) and Vineet Kumar (Founder, Cyber Peace Foundation)

Research: Digital literacy and impact of misinformation on emerging digital societies

PN Vasanti (Director, Centre for Media Studies)

Research: Seeing is Believing: Is Video Modality More Powerful in Spreading Fake News?

Anushi Agrawal (Researcher, Maraa -- Media and Arts Collective) and Nihal Passanha (Researcher, Maraa)

Research: WhatsApp Vigilantes? WhatsApp messages and mob violence in India


Characterising misinformation as ‘a complex problem that lies at the intersection of human psychology, civil society, and technology’, WhatsApp said in an official statement that there are four core areas of research they are focusing on:

  • Information Processing of Problematic Content
  • Digital literacy and misinformation
  • Election-related misinformation
  • Network effects and virality
“The goal of these research awards is to facilitate high-quality external research on these topics by academics and experts who are in the countries where WhatsApp is frequently used and where there is relatively limited research on the topic.” 
WhatsApp statement

Anushi Agrawal and Nihal Passanha provided written answers to The Quint’s questionnaire.

Nihal Pasannha and Anushi Agrawal

1. What made you apply for this grant? Your area of work and focus.

Our area of work is to better understand the role played by media and communication without reducing our analysis to technological determinism.

The focus in this project is specifically to investigate the role of WhatsApp – both in terms of the contexts that produce WhatsApp usage as well as the contexts in which WhatsApp is used – consumption and distribution of messages. Together, we aim to theorise the role of WhatsApp and its users in the context of mob violence.

2. As Indians, how do you perceive the menace of misinformation on social media and messaging platforms?

Misinformation has existed before social media and will probably continue to exist without or after social media. What has changed, perhaps, is the scale, scope and ways of distributing this information.

These interventions change the very nature of (mis)information itself and has complex effects on other spheres of public and private life, individually and collectively. There is an urgency to understand and unpack these relations since we have witnessed loss of life and property, especially of those already oppressed, on a daily basis.

3. Mob violence and lynchings have resulted as a consequence of rumours on WhatsApp. How did a messaging app become this influential and dangerous?

Mob violence and lynchings happen in a variety of contexts, and are triggered by a variety of reasons – often without a single causal factor. So it would be difficult to say violence has resulted solely as a consequence of rumours on WhatsApp.

However, technologies like WhatsApp also cannot be completely exonerated from violence since the ‘people’ are able to become ‘mobs’ precisely through the interventions of technologies – technologies participate in the very rapid translation of latent antagonism into violence.

Messaging apps like WhatsApp have become influential because they are a part of a social system that demands the ‘need’ for such technologies.

4. What is the way forward for India in dealing with fake news and misinformation?

It is unlikely that there is any one way forward, and also unlikely that we can ‘deal’ with fake news and misinformation forever. More realistically, we would like to come up with strategies of negotiation to minimise symbolic and physical violence.

These are posed as strategies since any way forward would necessarily involve cooperation and resistance between different social groups.

We also hope to identify and emphasise crucial measures that the State, we as citizens and companies like WhatsApp need to undertake – these could cut across policy, regulation, legislation, law, education and media literacy, and civic culture.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Social Media   WhatsApp   Facebook 

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