What did I learn about misinformation in 2021?
- Arushi Saxena
The #EkMinute Project: Combatting WhatsApp misinformation in India and the wisdom of Audre Lorde
It was October 2020 and I was starting my second year of graduate school. I had to think of a thesis idea based on guidance provided to us by Harvard’s Masters in Design Engineering program. I landed on the idea of WhatsApp forwards in India due to a myriad of recent personal experiences and my discomfort with growing Hindu fundamentalism in India. WhatsApp had notoriously spurred a series of mob lynching in India over the past few years and encouraged harmful digital vigilantism. These issues were happening due to a combination of structural racism and bad digital behavior: literate individuals were frequently following victim to and propagating misleading information to one another.
Something had to be done, and I immediately knew what my end-state vision was:
My personal network in India eventually overcomes their socialized habits, cultural norms, and inter-generational tendencies to feel comfortable reproving their uncle or grandmother each time he/she forwarded a suspicious or racist message on WhatsApp.
Not so easy. But by breaking this complex system into a series of smaller steps, at least some progress was possible.
First, I needed to explore how and why people behave on WhatsApp, and test if they are amenable to change. The #Ek Minute Project (meaning “one minute” in Hindi) was born from this process. The goal was to make people more mindful of their own forwarding behavior on WhatsApp by sending them “counter-forwards” with social media best practices and food for thought. But it was also important to understand if well-meaning adults would engage with these digital literary concepts in the first place. Specifically, people who accidentally spread political and cultural misinformation without realizing its harm. This group was a very specific demographic, given that they don’t concoct or spread misinformation maliciously.
After an extensive literature review and conversing with cultural experts, activists, journalists and misinformation researchers around the world, I narrowed into the complex contagion theory. According to this theory, if you keep seeing the same thing again and again from different sources, you’ll start internalizing the content. Therefore, our WhatsApp “counter-forwards” needed to be bold and catchy (and mimic popular Indian themes). If they weren’t catchy, they wouldn’t be forwarded. And if they weren’t forwarded, it would be difficult to accomplish digital literacy at scale.
I worked with my classmate, Akshay Marathe, a renowned Indian political communication strategist, on the operations and execution of EkMinute. We designed some of our own forwards, crowd-sourced others, and formally developed a handful of messages in partnership with Dhun Patel, Apurva Chavan, Vikram Sane, and Vaishnavi Patil from Therefore Design in Pune, India.
Underlying our designs were my two hypotheses:
Different tones work with different types of readers. For example: Outspoken, ideologically driven users of WhatsApp might not care to read neutral messages about fact-checking. They might, however, stop to read a funny message that makes light of misinformation.
2. Online behavior differs by age group and generation. Millenial and Gen Z participants might engage slightly differently with our campaign and its design assets. While some might be motivated and optimistic about their potential, others might be too jaded to engage. Therefore, the user research and survey questions I asked were different for each age group.
After launching an Instagram awareness campaign and conducting multiple rounds of user research, we finalized a collection of ~10 messages to pilot and forward on WhatsApp. These messages had a variety of tones and themes so that we could compare and contrast the efficacy of each.
We mobilized a group of volunteers in the US and India to forward these posters to their personal networks in India. While it was not possible to track the reach of each message due to WhatsApp encryption, we utilized proxy metrics such as website traffic on ekminuteproject.com, number of downloads, and more.
How did the campaign turn out?
It was a humbling and rewarding result. As we started our campaign, we received positive feedback from those who organically encountered our work as well as others we reached out to for help.
We also received constructive feedback that text-heavy posters were not the ideal medium to communicate. Short video clips or GIFs would be much better received. Moreover, we also encountered target audience members who pretended to care, but really didn’t care to change their behavior.
Interestingly, our survey results demonstrated that older adults actually enjoyed reading our serious concepts whereas younger individuals in the same survey believed that older adults would only enjoy funny messages. There were a few other generational misalignments that I would love to explore further later down the line.
Ultimately, the campaign was cut short due to the devastating COVID-19 second wave in India. Within a span of two weeks, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Twitter were over-flooded with requests for oxygen tanks and live updates from healthcare and social workers all over India. While COVID-related misinformation was definitely rampant on the platform, I felt odd injecting funny or playful message tones into the digital sphere. At the same, it was critical to remind people to look out for misinformation in these life versus death moments. We settled on forwarding only serious posters with very specific messaging:
In conclusion, this campaign taught me a lot of new things but also affirmed some suspicions.
To be widely read, messages need to be hyper-specific to the topic of the day/week
The medium matters and static visuals aren’t enough
People who are most affected by misinformation are hardest to reach
I would be remiss to highlight the entire irony underlying this campaign. We chose to rely on social media and its virality to counter the very virality that caused the harm we were addressing in the first place. And as Audre Lorde, the famous American womanist and civil rights activist explains, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”.
So — as a designer and technology ethicist, it has been important for me to acknowledge this reality and this irony. My rationalization has been that social media and the digital space are not going away anytime soon. If we focus on promoting digital literacy, behavior change and responsible usage, at least some harm can be minimized going forward.
I’m hoping to continue working on this campaign by creating timely, relevant multimedia content that can be forwarded on WhatsApp India or shared via Instagram. While people’s attention spans are limited and choosy, I’m hoping we can meet our readers where they are at and cleverly inject digital literacy concepts into their world. If we’re successful, we might be able to influence democratic processes and save lives.
If you are an India-affiliated content creator, technology activist, academic, or just passionate about preventing the spread of misinformation, please reach out to me for collaboration ideas or feedback.
If you would like to forward our counter-forwards to your loved ones or anyone in your network, you can download them here. Learn more about our project at www.ekminuteproject.com.