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HomeIndiaPolitical WhatsApp groups increase knowledge, help people distinguish fake news: Study

Political WhatsApp groups increase knowledge, help people distinguish fake news: Study

People in groups where they can chat with each other are more aware than those who can only receive messages from admins, says a paper by a Harvard PhD student.

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New Delhi: People engaged in political WhatsApp groups tend to be more politically aware and better able to distinguish false news, claims a study done by Kevin Carney, a PhD student at Harvard University in the US.

The study finds that these effects are significantly stronger if the members are allowed to communicate among themselves, rather than just receive information from the group administrators. It was published online as a job market paper on 12 November. 

The researcher studied political WhatsApp groups in the runup to the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly election in April this year. The participants were invited to join WhatsApp groups organised by political parties and were divided into three sets — those who could only see messages sent by party officials (vertical communication), those who could also chat with each other (horizontal communication), and a control group.

WhatsApp, an instant messaging application, has often been cited as a fast spreader of fake news, and has proved to be quite influential during elections. 

Compared to other social media applications, WhatsApp connects directly with individuals, and political parties try to leverage this interpersonal connection. Nearing elections, when reaching the end voter is quintessential, political parties form groups, reaching out to voters on a direct basis. Groups are formed at the micro level — and hence their numbers swell. 

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), known for spending hefty sums on digital campaigns, acknowledges the power of this app, which is why it created about 72,000 WhatsApp groups during the 2020 Bihar Assembly elections alone. Even during the Madhya Pradesh bypolls last year, the BJP reached the voters via 65,000 WhatsApp groups.

Although the study doesn’t take into account how the BJP’s WhatsApp machinery works, as the party doesn’t contest strongly on its own in Tamil Nadu, it shows that political parties are taking WhatsApp communication seriously. And it demonstrates how they can use it to become even more influential — by allowing more room for horizontal communication.

Also read: How to deal with misinformation in end-to-end encrypted texts? Answer is not traceability

How the study was conducted

The study is based on a survey conducted on people who joined political WhatsApp groups. Through a Facebook advertisement during the month of the election (April 2021), the author randomly invited 3,056 people for a survey from which they were randomly given a link to join a group. 

Nearly half of these invitees — 49%, or 1,491  —  clicked on the links to join the WhatsApp groups assigned to them. These belonged to Tamil Nadu’s two major parties: the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

These respondents were from 25 constituencies around Chennai. They were randomly assigned to one of three groups. In one group (the author calls it the full group), the admins sent political messages and members were allowed to discuss them. 

In the second (the party-content-only group), people received the same political messages as those in the first group, but the settings were such that only admins could send messages. There was no option for participants to post messages in the group or converse with other members. 

The remaining participants were sorted into a control group and redirected to the final page of the survey.

Horizontal communication is the key

Nearly four weeks after the elections ended, the author conducted an endline survey of the participants in these WhatsApp groups. This resulted in three key revelations about voting behaviour.

The endline survey was a quiz in which people were given nine headlines, of which three were true, three were fake but had been debunked by fact-checkers, and the remaining three were fake statements written by research assistants in Chennai. 

The first finding was that people in the full groups were better able to distinguish between fake and real news. Their belief in true news assigned to the party increased significantly. Belief in fake news decreased, although this drop was not significant, the study states.

The second key revelation was that horizontal communication was helpful in influencing the political preference of the participants towards the party whose group they had been assigned to. 

“My second result is that the full groups have a small but significant average effect on political preferences, pushing participants towards the assigned party. This effect comes mainly from persuasion of people who identify as moderate at the baseline,” the author says in the paper.

The final revelation was that horizontal communication was the key to influencing the voters, compared to vertical communication. 

“Across all main outcomes, the treatment effects of party messaging alone are consistently smaller and less significant than those of the full groups. Party messaging alone has no significant effect on knowledge or political preferences,” the author writes. 

This means that in order to influence voters’ political preferences, horizontal communication is essential. 

“I show that the difference between the aggregate effects of the full groups and party messaging alone is statistically significant. This suggests that the defining feature of social media — horizontal communication between peers — is precisely what makes social media groups influential in this context,” the study says.

(Edited by Rohan Manoj)

Also read: How is the ‘Yogi will win’ story spreading in UP? Ask the mahaulis


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