The Facebook-owned messaging platform, WhatsApp, will award $50,000 to independent researchers who study the spread of false propaganda on the communication platform and highlight measures for curtailing the same. The development comes after incidents of mob violence being reported in various parts of India because of inciting information being shared on WhatsApp.
The company has established a 'WhatsApp Research Awards for Social Science and Misinformation' which states, "WhatsApp is commissioning a competitive set of awards to researchers interested in exploring issues that are related to misinformation on WhatsApp. The WhatsApp Research Awards will provide funding for independent research proposals that are designed to be shared with WhatsApp, Facebook, and wider scholarly and policy communities." The monetary award is unrestricted, implying that the awardee may utilize the prize amount for any cause.
In principle, the company wants researchers to study the different ways in which:
a) Content received through WhatsApp is interpreted by users.
b) Political actors leverage WhatsApp to influence elections.
c) Information is disseminated through WhatsApp networks to create trends.
d) Technology can safely and effectively be introduced in under-served geographical regions.
e) The company can detect illegal activity on the platform without monitoring the content of users.
Preference will be given to research conducted in countries where WhatsApp is a prominent medium of communication, namely India, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, etc. PhD holders will be favoured for individual applications; while, in exceptional circumstances, applications from individuals without PhD would be appraised if they have demonstrated high-level of achievement in social sciences or technological research. All data aggregated from the research efforts will be owned by the researcher. Applications have to be sent in by August 12th, and potential awardees will be notified by September 14th.
Additionally, WhatsApp will organize two workshops for awardees to:
a) Provide a detailed introduction to how the WhatsApp product works as well as context on the focus areas of misinformation on which the research is to be conducted. It will be tentatively held between October 29-30, in Menlo Park, CA.
b) Present their initial research findings to WhatsApp and other awardees, providing an opportunity to contextualize their findings with each other. It will be tentatively held in April 2019.
The company will, in addition to the research award amount, arrange and pay for the travel and accommodation of one representative from each awardee.
Recently, the Government of India had instructed WhatsApp to take swift measures to prevent the spreading of "irresponsible and explosive messages" through its platform. On July 1st, five people were lynched to death in Dhule district of Maharashtra by villagers who suspected the deceased of being child-lifters. WhatsApp responded to the Government by stating that it is horrified by the terrible acts of violence perpetrated by false messages shared on the platform. It further outlined steps to curtail such abuse, which include product controls, digital literacy, and fact checking.