Researchers awarded funding to study misinformation on WhatsApp

November 14, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A research team led by a Penn State faculty member was one of 20 projects — from a pool of over 600 proposals from around the world — selected to receive funding from WhatsApp to study misinformation.

S. Shyam Sundar, the James P. Jimirro Professor of Media Effects, and his team have been awarded $49,958 by WhatsApp to conduct a study about the power of video modality in spreading “fake news” in India.

WhatsApp Pitch

S. Shyam Sundar presents his proposal to study misinformation on WhatsApp.

IMAGE: Photo Provided

“The idea for the project came from the recent spate of mob lynching and murders of innocent people in India that has been traced to false videos of child kidnappers circulated on WhatsApp,” Sundar said. “We want to find out if fake messages in video form are seen as more believable than those in audio and text forms.” 

Sundar, founder and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory housed in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications at Penn State, has been studying the psychology of online news consumption for more than 20 years. His experiments have identified several important elements of digital media technologies that shape the perceived credibility of internet-based information.

“The modality of information can make a difference to how much attention and thought goes into processing news information online,” Sundar said. “In this project, we predict that video 'fake news' will be consumed superficially and more likely to be forwarded to others.”

Funding from the grant will be used to conduct a series of experiments with rural and urban WhatsApp users in India. Sundar will be collaborating with New Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies, a non-profit research agency specializing in field-based scientific studies.

“WhatsApp is looking forward to working with the research team from Penn State. The consequences of misinformation are real and we know this is a long-term challenge that requires action from civil society, government and technology companies,” said Mrinalini Rao of the WhatsApp research team. “The independent research conducted by Penn State will make a meaningful contribution to how we build WhatsApp for years to come.”

The goal of the WhatsApp Misinformation and Social Science Research Awards is “to facilitate high quality, external research on topics related to misinformation by academics and experts who are in the countries where WhatsApp is frequently used and where there is relatively limited research on the topic,” according to statement from the company. WhatsApp is a subsidiary of Facebook.

Last Updated November 14, 2018