In August of last year, Orton Kiishweko, a reporter with Tanzania’s Daily News, stumbled upon a story making the rounds on WhatsApp, the mobile messaging app.
“I read from a WhatsApp group that some Muslim Tanzanian clerics had been kidnapped by rebels in Eastern Congo and were demanding ransom,” Kiishweko recalls.
A bit of Googling corroborated the initial reports. But details were sketchy. So Kiishweko reached out to officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to confirm the story. They provided him with the contact details of Tanzania’s ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). “I immediately saved the ambassador’s number on my smartphone and sent him a WhatsApp message,” he says. “He responded with details and I did my story based on the full details he gave me.”
Kiishweko is part of a growing number of Tanzanian journalists who are increasingly leveraging the popularity of WhatsApp in the country and turning it into a tool for reporting the news.
WhatsApp boasts more than 1 billion users worldwide. It’s the most popular mobile messaging app in the world, second only to Facebook in the number of users globally, which bought it in a US$19 billion deal two years ago.
News organizations are starting to recognize the platform's potential. In March, the BBC announced that it will use WhatsApp to distribute a documentary about young people in the Congo. And earlier this month, The Financial Times said it will start delivering one free article a day beyond its paywall through WhatsApp.
In Africa, the explosion of mobile use has created an ideal customer base for mobile apps such as WhatsApp. The continent is estimated to represent one of the platform’s biggest shares of Internet users.
Many Tanzanians think of WhatsApp as being synonymous with owning a mobile phone. When folks buy a new device, they expect the app to be included in the transaction.
“People ask: ‘Does this phone have WhatsApp? If not, download it for me,’” Mike Mushi, co-founder of Jamii Forums, a popular Tanzanian online forum, says. For most people “WhatsApp is part of a phone,” he adds.
And with some mobile phone companies making it cheaper for users with basic smartphones to use the tool, the app has become the social network of choice for Tanzanians.
“WhatsApp is now the No. 1 social media platform in Tanzania,” Mushi says. “Bigger than Facebook.”
The prominence of WhatsApp became clear during the country’s presidential election last year. Political parties would use the platform to test how their messages were being received by the public. And if something was being shared on WhatsApp, then it probably meant the message was resonating, political strategists pointed out.
Why they chose WhatsApp as a tool of choice for measuring the effectiveness of their communication has something to do with the way the platform works. Users on WhatsApp are typically part of groups with which they share content. Because of that networked nature, information can go viral much quicker. “If you have access to 100 groups, and there are a 100 people in each group, then you could potentially reach 100,000 people,” Mushi explains.
And for journalists, it increasingly means that if something is percolating on there, it probably means it’s newsworthy.
“WhatsApp is our notice board, our pager,” Tulanana Bohela, a reporter for the BBC in Tanzania, says. “Any story we do almost invariably we would’ve heard of it first on WhatsApp in some group somewhere.”
Bohela explains that the ability to share rich media via the platform at minimal data costs to a user has also allowed Tanzanians to easily distribute multimedia content.
Bohela points as an example the way the newsroom reported the death of the popular Congolese singer Papa Wemba last month. “It started with a couple of pics of [Wemba] passing out on stage shared on WhatsApp from our reporter from the Congo,” she says. This became a jumping off point to investigate the story further.
“It’s a tool … we use to break stories as they are developing and while things evolve,” Bohela adds.
For Mushi and Jamii Forums, which specializes in crowdsourced news, WhatsApp has become a way to involve their audience in newsgathering. “We use it to distribute content and then people can send back information and give us more context [on a story].”
For all its advantages, however, the platform is not without its pitfalls. Information can circulate on WhatsApp that may appear official but is in fact untrue. Which means despite WhatsApp’s ability to easily connect reporters to potential stories, old-fashioned reporting still applies.
“WhatsApp is as much a source as any other,” Bohela points out. “Like any source, it needs to be fact-checked.”
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Luis.