WhatsApp as a news' practice: technological affordances shaped by social use


Internet and social networks have contribute to create a new public sphere for political and social discussion, however, the use of social media for news has started to fall in a number of key markets (Newman et al., 2018). Different researches have shown how social networks sites have became spaces of incivility and impoliteness (Ruiz et al., 2011); others state that social sites like Facebook or Twitter have got so bigger that users do not feel comfortable sharing content openly (Newman et al. 2018). As a result, they are moving discussion to messaging apps, such as WhatsApp and Telegram, where interactions between users are mostly private in an enclosed ecosystem of friends and acquaintances (Frankel, 2018).

In closed or semi-closed platforms such as WhatsApp, Telegram, and Facebook Groups users feel more confortable than in open platforms (Frankel, 2018). However some studies conclude that the fake news and other problematic contents spreading on Whatsapp are increasing day to day (Khurana and Kumar, 2018; Newman et al 2017). Internal features create in users a false sense of confidence in the information shared and makes users more resistant to moderate or change personal values (Sharot, 2017). Hence, the relationship between problematic content and closed platforms used is twofold. Firstly, users become central in defining the creation and sharing of (mis)information; and secondly, the confidence environment that characterizes WhatsApp, makes difficult for users a critical approach to problematic and antagonistic content, particularly when the content questions one's beliefs and values.

The main aim of our research is to analyze the role of WhatsApp as a space to discuss about news’ content throughthree major research questions:1) How WhatsApp's users interact with news shared by their network of contacts and how they engage with current affairs and provide a framework for conversation? 2) To what extend are WhatsApp's users exposed to news that they are at odds with their core identity beliefs? 3) To what extend features of WhatsApp determine the sharing behavior of WhatsApp's users?

To address these research questions, we employ qualitative approach based on 6 focus groups (n=48), which are aimed at stimulating participants’ expression of their “latent thoughts” and show how they construct their own personal meaning on the use of WhatsApp. Participants were selected by taking into account criteria such as age, sex, and level of education. Results highlight that in WhatsApp news are experienced in an individual basis, decontextualized from media brands, being who sends the news the most important element that shapes how users engage with media content. Furthermore, we found that WhatsApp groups do facilitate accidental exposure. However, issues such as cognitive bias and third person effect become important for users’ engagement with news, as they make less possible that citizens trust ideologically opposite news media content.