The University of Birmingham has been granted $50,000 from WhatsApp to study misinformation and its impact on society.

The research team, led by Dr Jonathan Fisher, reader in African Politics, will examine how political messaging is developed during elections, specifically looking at how it is disseminated and consumed via WhatsApp during the forthcoming Nigerian elections taking place in February 2019.

"During November 2018, over a dozen Nigerian news organisations joined forces and committed to work together to identify how ‘fake news’ is circulated in the lead-up to the country’s general election in February," Fisher said.

"Our project is part of this broader effort to shine a spotlight on the role of misinformation in this critically important election, and to devise strategies for tackling it."

The grant is one of twenty $50,000 awards as part of WhatsApp's Misinformation and Social Science Research Award total pot of $1million.

They have been offered to academics from around the world, including Brazil, Israel and Singapore, to study how misinformation impacts democratic processes through fake news, calls for violence and election-related propaganda.

The research project, which is a collaboration between the University of Birmingham and the Centre for Democracy and Development in Nigeria, will focus in particular on governor races in the states of Oyo and Kano, while also looking more broadly at how WhatsApp has been used in the presidential election.

Through in-depth interviews with key stakeholders, the team will specifically look at how WhatsApp is used by political candidates, their teams and supporters to tailor political messages to local and electoral contexts, and with what impact.

Fisher and his team will also be holding focus groups and surveys with voters in both states to look at how far voters are influenced by political messages shared on WhatsApp.

"WhatsApp is, of course, highly encrypted and this, along with the low cost, is one of the reasons why users are keen to engage with it in politically-sensitive contexts," he explained. 

"The challenge for researchers is that this high level of encryption means understanding how people use and interact with the platform is difficult to comprehensively analyse, so this is a valuable opportunity to discuss with voters how they use WhatsApp during elections."

The results will be used to develop strategies for tackling misinformation during elections, some of which to be presented to WhatsApp in April 2019, but made publicly available throughout the research project via online blog articles and podcasts, as well as at two dissemination events in London and Abuja during April 2019.

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