What WhatsApp “API access” meant for Comprova
The collaborative journalism project was the first to have special access to one of Brazil’s most popular apps
By Aimee Rinehart, (Versão em português brasileiro)
Our collaborative verification project, Comprova, brought together 24 newsrooms in Brazil to debunk mis- and disinformation around the national elections that took place in October 2018. First Draft wanted to facilitate a project in Brazil because it’s the largest democracy in the Global South and is becoming an increasingly polarized country. We also wanted to take a closer look at how mis- and disinformation is exchanged on the closed messaging application WhatsApp. Brazil has had a massive adoption of WhatsApp with an estimated 120 million people on the platform.
API sounds fancy but what did it actually mean for Comprova? For the first time, WhatsApp gave a journalism non-profit the ability to receive questions from the public on an intermediary website, Zendesk. Had we just used WhatsApp for Business, we would have been tethered to one phone to try and respond to the almost 70,000 questions the project received. Zendesk was integrated into our business account and allowed multiple journalists and student journalists to review “tickets,” or questions from the public. For most of the project, four journalists monitored questions. For the last month of the election, there were 10 people assigned to sort and sift tickets. Through this process, the team began to see patterns of mis- and disinformation and sent these on to editors for consideration to debunk. The team also replied to the person who sent the original message with a simple note or a link to the published article on the topic.
An early-in-the-project dashboard for Zendesk, which allowed the Comprova team to sort “tickets” or questions from the public.
On the days surrounding the first election on October 7, voting integrity was a concern among people asking questions to the Comprova WhatsApp number. Photos of ballot voting receipts declaring a winner early began to circulate online. Based on public interest and noting a possible trend to misinform voters, the Comprova partners collaborated on verifying the authenticity of the photo and published a report to clarify photos of the ballot. The photos were authentic, but the “winner” described on the ticket was for the regional area only, and not the final general-election outcome. The team responded to questions about this voting receipt with a link to the Comprova debunk, (pictured left and translated by Google Translate). Within Zendesk, we created a “macro” (pre-formatted responses stored in a drop-down menu) so with one click, we could send the debunk to each person who asked about the ballot papers; this response was sent 900 times to different people who asked about it.
The collaborative project CrossCheck France ran for 10 weeks in spring 2017 and received 600 questions from the public by email from a submission form on the website. We were warned by Brazilian journalists that we could expect to see 600 questions in the first hour from Brazilians. They said so without a laugh and they were right about an engaged citizenry: Comprova received almost 70,000 questions from the public. During the first week of October leading up to the first election, the business account received an average of 3,000 questions daily. The Zendesk project manager reported that the platform typically receives 2,000 questions per month for its most-active clients, so Comprova struck them as a particularly “viral” experience.
We’ve had a learning curve figuring out the capabilities and limitation of a WhatsApp for Business Account. For example, there is no status update nor the ability to have a scrolling feed of information that would make it easier for people to share. Depending on the user path from the project website, the person is presented a field to either sign up to project updates or ask their question. We aimed to respond within 24 hours but we received so many messages our average response time was about 36 hours. While working with Zendesk to establish this integration, many of the analogies were related to airlines, as they have been the largest adopter of the WhatsApp Business Account API. These airline analogies also indicate that we need to develop technical integrations designed explicitly for journalism challenges.
Representatives from WhatsApp and Zendesk checked in, often on the weekend, to see how we were getting along with the API. The team is clearly aware of the challenges of misinformation circulating on the platform and sees projects like Comprova as one way to help.
There is no way the Comprova team could have addressed the almost 70,000 tickets on a single phone, so the WhatsApp API was critical to the ambitions of the project, which was to inform the Brazilian electorate. We hope Comprova will be back in 2019, but in the meantime we’re using the same WhatsApp API integration with our newest project, CrossCheck Nigeria. We suspect WhatsApp traffic in Nigeria will rival Brazil, but whatever happens, the learning continues.