Investigating How University Students in the United States Encounter and Deal With Misinformation in Private WhatsApp Chats During COVID-19


K. J. Kevin Feng, Princeton University; Kevin Song, Kejing Li, Oishee Chakrabarti, and Marshini Chetty, University of Chicago


Misinformation can spread easily in end-to-end encrypted messaging platforms such as WhatsApp where many groups of people are communicating with each other. Approaches to combat misinformation may also differ amongst younger and older adults. In this paper, we investigate how young adults encountered and dealt with misinformation on WhatsApp in private group chats during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. To do so, we conducted a qualitative interview study with 16 WhatsApp users who were university students based in the United States. We uncovered three main findings. First, all participants encountered misinformation multiple times a week in group chats, often attributing the source of misinformation to be well-intentioned family members. Second, although participants were able to identify misinformation and fact-check using diverse methods, they often remained passive to avoid negatively impacting family relations. Third, participants agreed that WhatsApp bears a responsibility to curb misinformation on the platform but expressed concerns about its ability to do so given the platform's steadfast commitment to content privacy. Our findings suggest that conventional content moderation techniques used by open platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are unfit to tackle misinformation on WhatsApp. We offer alternative design suggestions that take into consideration the social nuances and privacy commitments of end-to-end encrypted group chats. Our paper also contributes to discussions between platform designers, researchers, and end users on misinformation in privacy-preserving environments more broadly.

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@inproceedings {281240,
author = {K. J. Kevin Feng and Kevin Song and Kejing Li and Oishee Chakrabarti and Marshini Chetty},
title = {Investigating How University Students in the United States Encounter and Deal With Misinformation in Private {WhatsApp} Chats During {COVID-19}},
booktitle = {Eighteenth Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security (SOUPS 2022)},
year = {2022},
isbn = {978-1-939133-30-4},
address = {Boston, MA},
pages = {427--446},
url = {},
publisher = {USENIX Association},
month = aug

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