The phone messaging app WhatsApp is beloved by millions but infamous as a platform for hoaxes. We speak with the co-host of the new South Africa-based podcast, “What’s Crap with WhatsApp?”
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
WhatsApp is one of the most popular messaging phone applications in the world, with millions of daily users. It’s also infamous for being a platform where hoaxes and rumors are easily spread far from public view. But a new African podcast called “What’s Crap On WhatsApp?” is trying to debunk some of the disinformation. The show is recorded as a voice note and shared on WhatsApp like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, “WHAT’S CRAP ON WHATSAPP?”)
KATE WILKINSON: We saw a message which said that apricot seeds can kill cancer cells, but that’s not true.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And then there was the advice to use salt or white toothpaste to test if you’re pregnant. This doesn’t work.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kate Wilkinson is a co-host of “What’s Crap On WhatsApp?” And she joins us now from Durban in South Africa. Welcome.
WILKINSON: Hi, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell us what role WhatsApp plays in Africa and why you chose this particular app to air your podcast.
WILKINSON: Well, WhatsApp plays a huge role in Africa because it is a way that normal people who live in Africa, like me, my friends, my colleagues, my family – it’s the way that we communicate. And we just realized that the existing fact-checking that we were doing and have been doing for a number of years on Facebook, on Twitter – we’d rarely been getting that right and covering all our bases. But we knew there was this big, black box that was WhatsApp. And we needed to try and get in there and see what was being spread, if it was dangerous and if we could help set the record straight.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The original intention behind this show was to uncover misinformation about South Africa’s election last year. But it quickly turned into something else. What happened?
WILKINSON: Yeah. So we partnered with Volume, which is a startup that’s based in Johannesburg. So we’re on WhatsApp, where we collect the misinformation that people want fact-checked. We produce the show and then distribute it back on the platform. And we launched it just before our national elections last year. And we really did expect that we would see mostly political misinformation; we would see people trying to sway voters; we’d see maybe political parties planting mis- and disinformation on the platform.
But to be honest, that’s not what we saw. For the most part, the clue’s in the name. We see a lot of crappy hoax messages being sent to us. But people often get very concerned and are worried about them because they play on our very human fears.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But what hoaxes are we talking about? Give us some examples.
WILKINSON: So they start from the very silly, you know, messages that if you find a Coke can outside your garage, it’s because criminals are marking your house for robbery. We also see sometimes dodgy medical advice about how to do a pregnancy test with toothpaste.
But then we also saw probably what could have been the most dangerous misinformation. We had an outbreak of xenophobic violence in the country, which saw foreigners and migrants targeted. And WhatsApp went wild with videos and very disturbing images. And through the fact-checking that we did on the platform, we were actually able to determine that most of these videos were actually unrelated to the latest round of xenophobic violence. These misleading images, these misleading videos, which were unconnected to the situation, could have really riled up an already tense situation.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: As you probably know, misinformation is a big deal in the United States. You may have heard. As information debunkers, what kind of tips do you have for us here?
WILKINSON: So the first thing to do is – when you get a message – is to ask yourself, you know, who created this original message? Can you try figure out a motive or an agenda? Secondly is to think about whether it plays with your emotions. Is it something that’s likely to make you angry? Is it something that’s likely to make you scared or cross? And is that an emotion that is fueling you to share it? And then thirdly, really, is just to ask, you know, could I be being misled? And when in doubt, don’t share.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I say this a lot. Everyone should become a fact-checker of their own feed.
Kate Wilkinson is a co-host of the podcast “What’s Crap On WhatsApp?” Thank you very much.