The way we access media and information has been changing at breakneck speed for years now. But the upheaval over the past 12 months or so feels like the most dramatic of all. Donald Trump has ushered a whole new phrase into the public consciousness – ‘Fake News’ – and Facebook, one of the most important purveyors of information in our digital age, has been plagued by scandals forcing dramatic changes at the company.
And new research now shows how the public is increasingly moving away from Facebook as a news source and is instead turning to WhatsApp.
The use of WhatsApp for news has nearly tripled since 2014, according to the report from the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, and has overtaken Twitter in importance in many countries, especially among younger users.
“Consumers are being put off by ‘toxic’ debates and unreliable news. They are also finding that alternative networks offer more convenience, greater privacy and less opportunity to be misunderstood. As a result they are moving discussion to messaging apps where they can be sure they are talking to ‘real friends’,” says the report.
On the topic of privacy, the report explains how private messaging groups can be used to share sensitive information in less democratic countries, such as Turkey.
“Privacy is an important issue for users, and this partly explains the growth in use of messaging apps, as opposed to more open social networks. Users in some ‘less free’ countries are more likely to think carefully before expressing their political views online.”
But even in other non-authoritarian countries, like the UK, the US and Japan, people say “that they do not always feel comfortable in expressing their political views in front of friends, family, and acquaintances” and they are “concerned that their immediate or outer social circle will think differently about them.”
One unfortunate side-effect of this trend toward sharing news on WhatsApp, however, is that it becomes even more difficult to verify the sources of information and to find out how news is spreading. This is because WhatsApp is an encrypted and fundamentally closed service.
So, the fear is that fake news might have found an even more fertile breeding ground in these closed WhatsApp networks than on Facebook.
This problem has recently had some very frightening, very real-world consequences. Earlier this week, 16 people were arrested in India after two men were beaten and lynched because of untrue WhatsApp rumours.
According to the BBC, the men had stopped to ask directions when they were beaten to death by a large mob because residents thought they were ‘kidnappers’ that they’d been warned about on WhatsApp.
The video that led to the deaths was, in fact, an edited version of a child safety video from Pakistan, designed to create awareness.
“When rumours start circulating on social media, it takes some time to stop them completely,” senior Assam police official Mukesh Agarwal told BBC Hindi.
This issue is just another headache for Mark Zuckerberg, after Facebook bought WhatsApp in February 2014 for around $19.3 billion - it seems like he’s merely stuck in a game of ‘fake news’ whack-a-mole, with efforts to remove the problem from one of his platforms merely causing it to pop up in another.
Facebook, and all internet companies, have a long way to go if they really want to get serious about clamping down on spreading false – and potentially dangerous – information.
And this raises the prospect further for greater government-level regulation of social media companies. If we don’t stand up to the billionaire tech titans, why would we expect anything to seriously change?
(Images: Getty / Reuters Institute)