If there is one time of the year when journalists have an especially pressing job on their hands to fight misinformation, it is election season.
Encrypted messaging platform WhatsApp, in particular, has been identified as a hotbed for the spread of mis- and disinformation around political events. As such, efforts to train journalists to penetrate the platform and bring audiences verified information have been carried out as recently as in the February 2019 Nigerian elections.
Just three months later, The Washington Post has taken a more engaged approach to covering the Indian elections on WhatsApp and fighting falsehoods there.
Jennifer Hassan, social media editor, Washington Post, looks to build on the publisher's approach to the German 2017 elections. Back then, foreign affairs reporter Rick Noack used WhatsApp as a way to keep audiences informed and updated in a down-to-earth style.
"We wanted to ensure that we were sharing news updates in a way that felt natural to the platform and that would be non-intrusive to the user," recalls Hassan.
Now with the Indian election afoot, 200 million Indians are using WhatsApp which presents a challenge to journalism. Hassan said they will go back and reuse Noack’s tactics of personally replying to users and including users' thoughts in Washington Post coverage too.
"Initially, we had a few responses from people who believed Rick was a bot," she said.
"But, over time through his frequent updates on his reporting and sharing personal photos of simple things like his morning coffee and remote workspaces, users soon realised he was a real human.
"They began to engage with him on the app, whether it was asking him to debunk articles they’d seen on social media or to get to know him better. One person messaged him to say he had seen him on television, while many others thanked him for his insights and clarity on complex issues.
"With the Indian election being such a major event and given the platform popularity in that area of the world, we decided to use Rick’s chat as a template for India, leading with a personality-driven approach and adding another dimension to our foreign journalism."
Throughout the election period and up until the last results trickle in on 23 May 2019, the duo is sharing a maximum of two credible news updates a day and providing users with a direct line to ask reporters for additional fact-checking or information. They are also open to hearing story ideas.
"We have been cautious not to flood people with too many updates too soon," Hassan explained.
"Those currently following the chat have seen a photo from Niha’s trip to a remote village where she reported about how hard India works to reach every voter and have read about the different symbols that represent each political party."
Copyright: Niha Masih
"By posing questions such as, ‘will you be voting, or are you watching from afar?’, we’re able to learn more about our audience, where they are based and what this election means to them.
"This channel is a great way for us to inform users on the Indian election while also lifting the lid on our reporting process at a time when transparency of the work we do as journalists is more important than ever."
But what is the key mark of success once the election draws to a close? For Hassan, numbers are not everything, instead, they aim to improve the conversation around key topics.
"At the end of each project, we ask people to provide feedback on how useful they found the updates, what they liked about the project, and what we could have done better. The sentiment has been overwhelmingly positive.
"People have expressed not wanting to be fed links on this platform and preferring information that is easily digestible, and this type of feedback helps inform how we continue to experiment on messaging apps," she concluded.
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