WhatsApp Increases Exposure to False Rumors but has Limited Effects on Beliefs and Polarization: Evidence from a Multimedia-Constrained Deactivation.

74 Pages Posted: 30 May 2023

See all articles by Tiago Ventura

Tiago Ventura

Center for Social Media and Politics

Rajeshwari Majumdar

New York University

Jonathan Nagler

NYU - Wilf Family Department of Politics

Joshua A. Tucker

New York University (NYU)

Date Written: May 23, 2023

Abstract

For years WhatsApp has been the primary social media application in many countries of the Global South. Numerous journalistic and scholarly accounts suggest that the platform has become a fertile ground for spreading misinformation and partisan content, with some going so far as to assert that WhatsApp could seriously impact electoral outcomes, episodes of violence, and vaccine hesitancy around the world. However, no studies so far have been able to show causal links between WhatsApp usage and these alleged changes in citizens' attitudes and behaviors. To fill this gap, we conducted a field experiment that reduced users' WhatsApp activity during weeks ahead of the most recent Brazilian Presidential election. Our field experiment randomly assigns users to a multimedia deactivation, in which participants turn off their automatic download of any multimedia - image, video, or audio - on WhatsApp and are incentivized not to access any multimedia content during the weeks leading up to the election on October 2, 2022. We find that the deactivation significantly reduced subjects’ exposure to false rumors that circulated widely during the weeks before the election. However, consistent with the minimal-effects tradition, the direct consequences of reducing exposure to misinformation on WhatsApp in the weeks before the election are limited and do not lead to significant changes in belief accuracy and political polarization. Our study expands the growing literature on the causal effects of reducing social media usage on political attitudes by focusing on the role of exposure to misinformation in the Global South.

Keywords: Social Media, Misinformation, WhatsApp, Elections, Global South

Suggested Citation

Ventura, Tiago and Majumdar, Rajeshwari and Nagler, Jonathan and Tucker, Joshua Aaron, WhatsApp Increases Exposure to False Rumors but has Limited Effects on Beliefs and Polarization: Evidence from a Multimedia-Constrained Deactivation. (May 23, 2023). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4457400 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4457400

Tiago Ventura (Contact Author)

Center for Social Media and Politics ( email )

Bobst Library, E-resource Acquisitions
20 Cooper Square 3rd Floor
New York, NY 10003-711
United States

Rajeshwari Majumdar

New York University ( email )

New York
United States

Jonathan Nagler

NYU - Wilf Family Department of Politics ( email )

Dept of Politics - 2nd floor
19 W. 4th Street
New York, NY 10012
United States

Joshua Aaron Tucker

New York University (NYU) ( email )

Bobst Library, E-resource Acquisitions
20 Cooper Square 3rd Floor
New York, NY 10003-711
United States

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