In September, Meta announced that it would make its new WhatsApp Channels feature available in 150 countries. Channels offers one-way broadcasting through which administrators can share information with their followers.
“WhatsApp’s Channels was designed as a simple, reliable and private way to receive important updates from people and organizations, right within WhatsApp,” Meta said in its announcement.
WhatsApp is the most popular messaging app in most African countries. Unfortunately, mis- and disinformation is thriving on the platform. As Channels is rolled out, African journalists worry that the new feature will further increase the dissemination of false news trends across the continent and globally.
“The fact that anyone can create a channel and reach many people at a glance poses a high risk that users will abuse,” said Lois Ugbede, a researcher at Dubawa, a West African fact-checking organization.
Some African journalists worry that channels run by well-known influencers will be the biggest sources of mis-and disinformation, as many often may not fact-check the content they share.
“Influencers have a huge following, and their posts can spread swiftly,” said Semilore Adelola, a fact-checker at Africa Check. "Some of them have attained demigod status with their followers, and any information they share is considered credible, whether true or false. The larger their 'fanbase,' the more viral the false information they share and nobody knows who can be at the receiving end of its danger," she said.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, Nigerians were resistant to receiving vaccines due to false information shared by popular social media accounts. In 2021, Dino Melaye, a sitting senator at the time, claimed on Twitter that the AstraZeneca vaccine that the Nigerian government had procured was the “least of the recognized vaccines out there” and had “low potency.” Not long after, a verified Instagram influencer, Tunde Ednut, shared the claim.
Ugbede fact-checked this and revealed that claims of negative AstraZeneca side effects were false. When she discovered that Ednut had created a WhatsApp Channel and gained more than 238,000 followers within two weeks, she was worried about it being another avenue for the influencer to spread misinformation.
“Fact-checking information [shared] by social media influencers is not hard, depending on the type of information,” said Ugbede. “What is difficult is getting the public to accept the debunk as fact and act on it.”
Challenges to fact-checking on Channels
It can be challenging to fact-check information shared by social media influencers, said Adelola: “Some influencers prioritize their reputation and fact-check their content to establish accuracy, while others put engagement ahead of accuracy, instead prioritizing the information that can keep their platforms bringing in views.”
Influencers who don’t commit to accuracy can put a strain on fact-checkers. “The difficulty [in verifying their content] is determined by the influencer's commitment to accuracy,” said Adelola.
Using Channels to push attacks on others is a further concern. Adelola shared an incident involving a Whatsapp Channel run by an influencer named Mariam Oyakhilome, who shared an individual’s contact information, claiming that this person had previously criticized her outfit in a Facebook post. Oyakhilome instructed her more than 1.1 million followers to harass him with phone calls and messages.
Lack of regulation
Caleb Ijioma, the executive director of RoundCheck, a youth-led fact-checking organization in Nigeria, fears that a lack of regulation around the Channels feature will increase the spread of misinformation on the platform.
“Some of these influencers create WhatsApp channels to share their opinion, fuel agendas and influence public discussion. There is a high possibility of false narratives spreading more on WhatsApp because users can now see information directly from these influencers,” he said.
Although Africa-based fact-checking organizations like Dubawa, Africa Check, The Cable and the International Centre for Investigative Journalism have WhatsApp channels to provide their followers with verified information, they can be drowned out by the volume of channels promoting disinformation.
“Disinformation on WhatsApp is the hardest to track because it's happening in very close places and there's a huge chance of reaching people with lower and medium media literacy levels,” said Olatunji Olaigbe, a disinformation and cybersecurity expert at CybAfriqué. “It's much more than exposing them to disinformation. It opens the ecosystem [of disinformation] up more than it has often been.”
Channels and its potential uses aren’t all negative. In contrast to WhatsApp Groups, which can only be accessed by group members and where end-to-end encryption can prevent experts from identifying the sources of disinformation spreading within them, information – and who is sharing it – can be seen on a channel whether or not someone is a member. This can help experts find, track and study disinformation on WhatsApp more than before, said Olaigbe.
One positive step to reduce disinformation on Channels would be a review and rating system similar to what has been rolled out for Facebook, he suggested, to allow fact-checkers to highlight if a claim is misleading or false.
WhatsApp users should be aware of false information that can spread easily, and report channels that are actively spreading disinformation, urged Ijioma. Journalists, he added, can help raise awareness of the potential for misinformation to spread on channels.
“Not many organizations have reported [on] the negative side of WhatsApp Channels,” said Ijioma. “They should look at this negative side and pronounce it through.”
Dubawa recently created a WhatsApp group to help identify disinformation on Channels, explained Temilade Onilede, a program officer at the organization.
“Anybody who sees fake news on WhatsApp can share it with us via the group while our fact-checkers hop on it,” she said. “This means we’re no longer the sole champion of information verification because our audience is also enlightened enough to identify a false claim and promote our fact-checks within their network.”