The WhatsApp Information Warp: Small Worlds and Willful Blindness

August 6, 2020

WhatsApp is part of the new Facebook. Messaging, not email, is becoming the go-to way to handle many online tasks. Need to make a voice phone call? WhatsApp first to set up a time. Want to buy contraband? Consult a WhatsApp group populated with fellow WhatsAppers. Want to get accurate information? Ask a person whom one knows or consult members of a small world.

WhatsApp Adds Web Search Feature to Help Users Debunk Misinformation” explains:

WhatsApp users in Ireland can now quickly check the contents of forwarded messages in a web search to help expose misinformation… The trial is WhatsApp’s latest attempt to stop the spread of misinformation on the platform after it introduced a limit to the number of times a message can be forwarded on earlier this year. The company confirmed that the new web search feature would begin rolling out today on both Android and iOS for users of the latest version of WhatsApp in Ireland, the UK, the US, Brazil, Italy, Mexico and Spain.

Helpful? Facebook is just another member of a WhatsApp user’s world, a very small world. The user has WhatsApp individuals in his or her circle of friends or contacts. Facebook is just in that circle, whether its consists of five or fifty individuals. Small worlds are a way of cutting out noise and trimming big knowledge tasks down to a more manageable size. [Note below] A small world may be a function of human intelligence and help explain why individuals prefer to interact in digital echo chambers. A participant in a small world operates in a conceptual space with fewer risks, surprises, and push backs. Stanford wizards explain that “short path lengths between nodes together with highly clustered link structures  necessarily emerge for a wide set of parameters.”

Small worlding may be a coping mechanism.

What happens when a widely used messaging service facilitates small worlds and then adds a workflow which defines what is and is not misinformation. The person in the small world, by definition, does not go looking for a broader context into which to plug an item of information. The WhatsApp user is likely to accept the designation provided by Facebook, which is the provider of the system, the context, and the signal about an item of information. Using an icon circumvents words. Over time, the WhatsApp user relies on the signal and the small world of friends and contacts to provide data, facts, ideas, and validation.

What users and possibly competitors and regulators may overlook is that WhatsApp does more than provide a handy messaging service. WhatsApp becomes a control mechanism either intentionally or unintentionally. Users, happy with the small world’s perceived value and functionality, become more satisfied with their small world. The small world is comfortable, predictable. Why question what one learns in a small world?

Why not? The WhatsApp small world is the digital equivalent of talking with friends and like minded individuals. Facebook, however, may not be a benign enabler and participant in a WhatsApp small world. Facebook can inject messages (advertising), shape content presented to clarify an issue, and herd members of many different small worlds toward a goal. Those in each small world do not, cannot, or choose to ignore a larger world.

WhatsApp warrants informed scrutiny because the small world phenomenon may put filter bubbles into a hypersonic chamber, accelerating molecules of thought to speeds unattainable outside of the WhatsApp machine. Determining what is and what is not valid information is a big play even for Facebook and WhatsApp in my opinion.

[Note] See also “Journalists’ Twitter Use Shows Them Talking within Smaller Bubbles

Stephen E Arnold, August 6, 2020


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