Accidents and scandals are the most common disinformation on WhatsApp

Accidents and scandals are the most common disinformation on WhatsApp

Published on 01 Mar 2023

Deaths, controversies with celebrities and topics that arouse fear in Venezuelans are the disinformative trends that have been registered in the application since 2021.

By Héctor Rodríguez and Rodolfo Rico

“Last minute!!!! The salsa great Óscar de León has just passed away” is what can be read in a chain that was spread through the WhatsApp application in May 2022 and that ended up being replicated, through screenshots, in social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Shortly after this information was circulated, the journalistic team of the Venezuelan Observatory of Fake News (OVFN) denied it because the Venezuelan singer is still alive and offering shows in different countries around the world.

And is that fake news about deaths of public and famous people due to different circumstances, scandals linked to these, in addition to fatal accidents occurred in Venezuela, have become the most recurrent and constant WhatsApp topics that cause disinformation in the country since 2021. Apart from all the informative wave that the coronavirus meant last year and the fakes promoted from abroad, the trend of “accidents and scandals” (category created by OVFN) was the one that produced the most hoaxes, manipulated information, falsified news and pseudo-journalistic contents in a span of 23 months that OVFN has been counting.

This is the result of a study developed by Medianálisis together with OVFN after analyzing more than one thousand messages on WhatsApp collected in a database built since last year. This work is also part of the deliveries of the Coalición Informativa “C-Informa”, a Venezuelan journalistic team that aims to confront disinformation and is integrated by Medianálisis, Efecto Cocuyo, El Estímulo, Cazadores de Fake News and ProBox with the support of the Consorcio para Apoyar el Periodismo Independiente en la Región (CAPIR) and the advice of Chequeado from Argentina and DataCrítica from Mexico.

The trend “accidents and scandals” has remained as the second topic on WhatsApp with the most questionable content with a total of 80 in 2021 and 46 until November 2022. In the first year it is surpassed by all the information linked to the coronavirus and COVID-19 which registered 241 false messages in the messaging application while in the second period the fake generated from abroad or that have no link with Venezuela were the ones that led the fake news with 126.

“In the database you can see examples of scandalous accidents that generated fake news as for example the alleged ex-agent of the British secret service, 80-year-old John Hopkins, who confessed to have killed Princess Diana, on orders of Prince Philip. That unit was verified in May 2021 and so far no one has confirmed that fact. In addition, this fake has been circulating since 2017 and when it comes back to the limelight, the name of the protagonist coincides with that of the American university that a year ago was in the main media headlines because of the coronavirus” is the analysis provided to this investigation by Osman Rojas, journalist of OVFN.

Photographs or images out of context is the most common informative resource distributed on WhatsApp to illustrate “accidents and scandals” although videos, voice notes without identification and chains with pure text with the use of emoticons such as patrol sirens, red X’s or some other graphic that invites alarm are also used.

An example of these chains that with false writings cause scandals and use emoticons such as those mentioned was recorded in February 2021 when in many digital and commercial media disseminated the alleged admission to a health center of the television presenter Gilberto Correa who was “hospitalized” for a “domestic violence situation”, a fact that was denied by the ex-wife of the television personality. There is also another case such as the one that circulated in June 2022 about Benjamín Rausseo, businessman and comedian popularly known as “Er Conde del Guácharo” who had died “in an accident in Maracay” from which “he was beaten, but then died of a heart attack”.

The data collected also shows that in both years, “accidents and scandals” remains in second place in the hierarchy above topics categorized as “government” which ranks third with a total of 105 cases, followed by “foreign” with 100 and fifth is “crimes” with 98 false units that were verified.

Fear as a target

In several WhatsApp groups of people living in the state of Táchira, during March 2021, a message circulated that assured about the actions of an alleged “armed rapist who moves in a white vehicle and prowls around the industrial zone of Paramillo and Palo Gordo in the state of Táchira and that two young local girls have been sexually abused by the man”.

Journalist Yamile Jiménez, from OVFN was in charge of verifying this information and after consulting with the Táchira State Police and workers of the industrial zones highlighted in the message, she was able to confirm that it was false information.

“This fake news spread like wildfire here in Táchira because it was disseminated a few days after femicides and sexual abuses took place in this Andean state, as well as in other states, which alarmed all those who learned about this information”, commented Jiménez about the climate that existed in Venezuela when this fake started to circulate via WhatsApp.

In the data compiled by the OVFN, fear is, together with disinformation, the main objectives of these fake contents studied during 2021 and so far this year. Of the total number of cases reported in the data, there are 12 objectives targeted by fake news and these are: to commit computer crimes, to feed despair, with misleading content, that are “trial balloons”, that generate fear, that are popularized, that victimize, that are satires or that misinform or cause fear.

At a general level, the accounting yielded 1012 messages specified by Medianálisis and the OVFN with totally clear objectives and of that total 568 had as a goal to misinform and 185 wanted to arouse fear, thus fulfilling one of the premises for a fake news to be successful: to spread lies that provoke the activation of the most basic defense mechanism such as your fears.

They divert attention

In addition to the impact on feelings that fake news can generate, these messages flood the multimedia messaging application also with the intention of diverting attention from truths that affect society and in the case of Venezuela, that minimize the impact of information that are reality and that link, for example, the different factors of power and politics.

“The fake news that are shared by WhatsApp, which is let’s say one of the most direct communication channels in Venezuela, end up diverting attention from the real necessary interests of society. In this application there is such an invasion of falsified contents that people have no notion of how important a real news related to public services or linking the government to irregular events can be”, analyzed Rojas when explaining one of the consequences of disinformation through messaging.

The consulted journalist warned that the avalanche of false information on WhatsApp makes people lose the ability to filter news so they never know what is true and what is false. He placed a recent example occurred during the natural tragedy of Las Tejerías occurred in October 2022.

“When that happened there was opacity from the regional and national authorities regarding the magnitude of the tragedy, number of deceased, victims and affected areas then that was breeding ground for fake on WhatsApp where videos circulated that had nothing to do with Venezuela, content of mystical facts in Las Tejerías about the rescue of a group of children, then reigned in false messages about the drama that there supposedly lived displacing the parts of the government that did not make much effort to report what was really happening” Osman assured.

So “Alert! Alert!”, if a message by WhatsApp reaches you with these warnings, doubt what it informs and most importantly, do not share it because our friends, family and acquaintances with whom we usually share this application are the first victims of the disinformation that was studied in this research.

This work is part of the cycle of deliveries of the Coalición Informativa (C-Informa), a project to show those who disinform, produce fake news and sow uncertainty in Venezuela, formed by Medianálisis, Efecto Cocuyo, ProBox, El Estímulo and Cazadores de Fake News with the support of the Consortium to Support Independent Journalism in the Region (CAPIR) and the advice of Chequeado from Argentina and DataCrítica from Mexico.

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