WhatsApp has announced that it will work with leading academic experts in India and commission a competitive set of awards to researchers interested in exploring issues that are related to misinformation on the platform.

The messaging platform owned by social media giant Facebook has said the programme is part of its vision to understand the safety problems people encounter on the platform and what more it can do within WhatsApp and in partnership with civil society to address the problem.

“WhatsApp cares deeply about the safety of our users. Through this new project, we look forward to working with leading academic experts in India to learn more about how online platforms are used to spread misinformation. This local research will help us build upon recent changes we have made within WhatsApp and support broad education to help people spot false news and hoaxes,” a WhatsApp spokesperson in India told thestatesman.com.

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In what it is calling the first phase of the programme, WhatsApp has welcomed proposals from any social science or related discipline that can foster insights into the impact of technology.

The WhatsApp Research Awards will also provide funding for independent research proposals designed to be shared with WhatsApp, Facebook, and wider scholarly and policy communities. “These are unrestricted monetary awards that offer investigators the freedom to deepen and extend their existing research portfolio,” says the company.

The programme offers up to $50,000 per research proposal, and the payment will be made to the researcher’s host university or organisation.

Interested candidates can send in their applications by August 12, 2018. All recipients will know the status of their application by September 15, 2018.

Who can apply?

WhatsApp has invited applications from individuals with established experience in studying online interaction and information technologies. People seeking to expand their research into these areas can apply too. The WhatsApp research staff, with consultation from external experts, will review all applications.

The company says it will be interested in proposals from social science and technological perspectives proposing “projects that enrich our understanding of the problem of misinformation”.

Awardees will retain the intellectual property rights to their data and work. WhatsApp says its staff may provide guidance but investigators will have to carry out the scope of work on their own.

Researchers who hold a PhD will get preference. However, individuals without PhDs who have high level of achievements in social science or technological research also stand a chance

Preference will also be given to research conducted in countries such as India, Brazil and Mexico where WhatsApp is a prominent medium of communication.

Areas to be explored

While the proposal lists some high priority areas, WhatsApp says it’s open to exploring other related areas too. The listed areas are:

Problematic content and processing of such information: Proposals exploring “social, cognitive, and information processing variables” involved in the consumption of content circulated on WhatsApp, its relation to the credibility of content, and the decision to promote it. “We are interested in understanding what aspects of the experience might help individuals engage more critically with potentially problematic content,” says WhatsApp.

Election-related content: WhatsApp has been a useful medium for political parties or persons to connect with people, though its misuse in the form of inaccurate or inflammatory content shared through the platform has been seen. Applicants can send proposals examining how political actors are using WhatsApp to organise or influence elections. The company says it’s interested in understanding this area both from political actors’ perspective and that of the voters.

Viral content: Though WhatsApp was supposed to have been a private and personal communication space, “not designed to facilitate trends or virality through algorithms or feedback”, some recent incidents and several in the past prove content do go viral through WhatsApp and bring disastrous results many times. WhatsApp is welcoming proposals exploring the characteristics of networks and content.

Digital literacy to fight misinformation: Proposals exploring the relation between digital literacy and susceptibility to misinformation are welcome. “We are interested in research that informs our efforts to bring technology safely and effectively into underserved geographical regions,” says WhatsApp.

Detection of problematic behaviour: Applicants can submit proposals examining technical solutions to detecting problematic behaviour within WhatsApp’s end-to-end encrypted system that facilitates privacy and security for all. “We are particularly interested in understanding and deterring activities that facilitate the distribution of verifiably false information,” says the company.

For selected applicants 

Those receiving the awards will be “strongly encouraged” to attend two workshops, the cost of which will be borne by WhatsApp in addition to the research award amount.

The first workshop, tentatively scheduled on October 29-30 at the company headquarters in Menlo Park, California, will provide the attendees with a detailed introduction to how WhatsApp works and also the context on misinformation. The participants will also receive feedback from WhatsApp research staff and guests on their research proposals.

At the second workshop, the awardees will be able to present their initial research findings, getting an opportunity to contextualise their findings with each other. The tentative date for this event is April 2019.

WhatsApp, however, makes it clear it won’t provide any of their data to the award recipients, and the researchers too don’t need to share their data and other work with WhatsApp.

Application requirements

  • All applications must be in English
  • There should be a research title, identification of the Principle Investigator (PI) and their institutional affiliation for the purposes of the proposed research
  • A brief programme statement specifying the proposed work — double-spaced, 12 point font, not to exceed 5 pages
  • A one-page bio and CV for the PI together with selected publication references
  • A clear statement of the budget requested.