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Real Time news with WhatsApp

28/03/2018
by Beaton Nyamapanda
Columns

With the advent of messenger apps, the speed at which information travels has increased significantly. This is abundantly clear with apps like WhatsApp acting as our first news sources and followed by traditional online media. This is usually then confirmed after more than a day with traditional print media with the daily news at 8pm containing the story.

The story of the now former Minister of Home Affairs for Namibia Pendukeni Iivula-Ithana bears reference. The story was widely shared in groups within minutes of it having occurred. Messages started flying at 3:45pm in the afternoon (1 February 2018) with an official looking letter from the president’s office confirming the news. The nature of the letter clearly shows that it was photographed whilst lying on a desk somewhere and shared widely.

This means that even before the recipient of the letter had received the letter, we the public via WhatsApp had already learnt of its contents. Reporters who tried to call the now ex-minister could not get any comment from the Minister as she was unaware of the letter and its contents. Of course, it latter turned out that the letter was indeed valid and the minister had been relieved of her duties.

This means we are now in the real-time news realm. News travel very fast and people can consume it as it happens. As this becomes the norm, news that’s a few hours old becomes stale news. WhatsApp groups have largely contributed to this real time news phenomena which social media heavyweights like Facebook had started. There are other popular instant messaging apps like Wechat and Facebook Messenger, to name a few that provide almost similar functionality. However, the largest instant messenger by number of users and by number of messages delivered is WhatsApp.

Sending a message in a group means everyone in the group receives the message and notification on their phones. These people also then tend to share this message with their other colleagues in other groups and in a short period of time, everyone knows what’s happening. The thing of groups is also that members can be from different countries thereby accelerating the movement of news across borders.

Traditionally in Namibia, media houses that deal with print usually have a 24 hrs news cycle. This means they print a copy of their newspaper once daily usually from Monday to Friday. This means if something happens at 10am in the morning, you will only see this news item in the newspaper only in the following day. Some countries have morning, afternoon and evening newspapers and the idea was to reduce the time of something happening and it being reported. Some media houses in Namibia have resorted to a semi-hybrid approach where they use social media or their websites to post breaking news articles. They usually provide headings and only a paragraph with a “Story developing more details to follow” disclaimer. The story is then featured in the print copy the following morning.

This then means that a vacuum is then created for real time news in between print runs. Reporters usually follow some ethics code that requires them to verify facts before publishing them. This also adds a delay to their publishing of stories. In my own humble opinion, this an archaic and ancient method of disseminating news. A quick search on Google tells me that the first printed newspaper came out in 1666, three and half centuries (351 years to be exact) ago and there has been no real change to this method of news dissemination till the 21st century.

All this does not affect WhatsApp news, or news shared via instant messaging apps. The public is not bound by an ethics code liked media houses. So, if one sees an interesting story, in this case a letter, they will share and comment on it like there’s no tomorrow. This is what has made real time news popular, technology and ease of access to smartphones which personalize news. Mobile apps like Lela, have to some extent tried to cover this vacuum by providing verified news as it happens. The fact that only verified news is displayed in Lela means people are more likely to trust the news than the news shared on WhatsApp groups.

Of course, there are downsides to this real time news culture. Forwarded content is usually never checked to verify facts. This means that a lie or a made-up story can move around the world in a very short time, sometimes causing irreparable damage. This happened to The University of Namibia where a made-up story contained in a memo about the university losing student marks and grades was widely circulated. The story circulated so widely that the University was forced to respond and issue a press release saying that the story was in fact a made-up story and therefore false. In some cases, damage would already have been done. This is more-so in cases whereby personal issues are widely circulated. Sometimes the affected party cannot issue a media release or respond to content shared via instant messaging.

I’m a technology person, I’m all for fast and real time news. However, because of some of the content shared on instant messages, I tend to be skeptical about everything unless confirmed by traditional media. This gives me a good balance between real time news access and verified factual stories. But that’s just me.

What’s the weirdest story that you received on WhatsApp that turned out to be false?