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ISSN: (Print) (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rdij20
News Engagement on Closed Platforms. Human
Factors and Technological Affordances Influencing
Exposure to News on WhatsApp
Pere Masip, Jaume Suau, Carles Ruiz-Caballero, Pablo Capilla & Klaus Zilles
To cite this article: Pere Masip, Jaume Suau, Carles Ruiz-Caballero, Pablo Capilla & Klaus
Zilles (2021) News Engagement on Closed Platforms. Human Factors and Technological
Affordances Influencing Exposure to News on WhatsApp, Digital Journalism, 9:8, 1062-1084, DOI:
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/21670811.2021.1927778
Published online: 04 Jun 2021.
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News Engagement on Closed Platforms. Human Factors
and Technological Affordances Influencing Exposure to
News on WhatsApp
Pere Masip , Jaume Suau , Carles Ruiz-Caballero , Pablo Capilla and
Blanquerna School of Communication and International Relations, Ramon Llull University,
The use of WhatsApp in everyday life, but also in relation with
practices such as receiving, sharing and commenting on news is
growing. However, due to its close or private nature, users’
engagement with news is less obvious or harder to grasp on
WhatsApp than on other social platforms. Drawing on practice
theory, this research aims to address how WhatsApp users
engage with news content, to identify if they are subject to inci-
dental exposure, and how technological affordances, as well as
individual and in-group social dynamics, shape these issues. The
results of 6 focus groups highlight that on WhatsApp news is
experienced by each user in an individual fashion, and news is
used decontextualized from media brands. In fact, the sender
seems to be the most influential element who determines how
users engage with and trust media content. Furthermore, depend-
ing on the level of trust that the sender possesses, news is more
likely to be endorsed or not. Finally, incidental exposure to ideo-
logically diverse news content tends to happen in groups, particu-
larly large groups, not in one-on-one chats.
Whatsapp; practice theory;
WhatsApp is currently the most widely used software for sending end-to-end
encrypted messages to individual users, or sharing messages in groups. Penetration of
WhatsApp as the preferred messaging app ranges from 70% to far over 90% in
Western industrialized nations as well as in emerging economies. In Spain, WhatsApp
has adopted a central role in users’everyday lives. According to Reuters Institute,
WhatsApp is the main social and messaging app in Spain, used by 78% of the popula-
tion (Newman et al. 2019). On average, they spend a record 64.35 min on this messag-
ing app per day, with Italy a distant second, clocking up 52.85 min per day. Spaniards
check their messages on the app 36.67 times per day (Security Research Group 2019).
Although WhatsApp was originally designed as a smartphone application for sending
messages to individual users, or to share messages in groups, the app has also
become a platform for social cohesion (Fern
evol and Rosales 2018), political
CONTACT Pere Masip firstname.lastname@example.org
ß2021 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
2021, VOL. 9, NO. 8, 1062–1084
discussion (Valeriani and Vaccari 2018), and news consumption: among social media it
is the second source for news (35%), after Facebook (47%) (Newman et al. 2019).
This data is not surprising, as Spanish citizens always tend to show high levels of
participatory intensity and engagement with news about public issues, both online
and offline (Suau 2015). According to previous research, citizens’engagement with
news is nowadays moving towards closed online platforms such as WhatsApp
(Newman et al. 2018). It seems that the public or open nature of social media such as
Facebook or Twitter is precisely what citizens dislike, and users are therefore less will-
ing to share and comment on public and political affairs online with people they do
not know as they fear that opinion exchange may lack civility (Guallar et al. 2016;
Suau 2015; Ruiz et al. 2011). The shift to closed environments like messaging apps
such as WhatsApp has deep implications worth studying. The technological affordan-
ces of such spaces are radically different from the participatory options offered by
news media sites or social media. Hence, users’engagement with news will differ
depending on the online environment in which it takes place: users maintain a con-
textual and multi-faceted relationship with technology (Evans et al. 2017), being influ-
enced by it but also remediating it and shaping technological affordances to better
suit their needs (Matassi, Boczkowski, and Mitchelstein 2019).
The purpose of this article is to contribute to the body of research on news
engagement on digital platforms. It will focus on an area of research which receives
scarce attention: how users make sense of the technological affordances offered by
WhatsApp with respect to their engagement with news as well as the human factors
that shape it, both individually and in in-group social dynamics. The article will focus
first on addressing practice theory as the main theoretical core of the article.
Subsequently, we are going to explore concepts such as technological affordances
and news engagement on closed platforms. The theoretical framework is then fol-
lowed by presenting the methodology, the results, and a final discussion of our find-
ings to the end of contributing to current debates in the field.
Using Practice Theory to Research Engagement with News
Nick Couldry proposes understanding media as a group of practices that have in com-
mon their relation to media (media as practice), as well as decentring media studies
from the analysis of the text or the institutions that produce it to better answer a
question that proves to be highly relevant nowadays: “What are people doing in rela-
tion with media?”(Couldry 2012, 35). Hence, drawing on practice theory (Feldman and
Orlikowski 2011; Schatzki, Knorr-Cetina, and von Savigny 2001) allows us to decentre
the text, thus making it possible to analyse people’s media engagement on its own
evol et al. 2010), and connecting media practices with everyday use (Bird
2010). Couldry defines a practice both by regularity of action and by its social compo-
nent, namely as an observable routine activity, with a clear automatic or unconscious
character, even possessing a certain sense of ritual (2012).
Previous research has focussed its attention on practice theory to better understand
how citizens engage with news on social media. What makes this area of study
DIGITAL JOURNALISM 1063
especially relevant is the fact that none of the most important social media sites were
designed initially with news dissemination in mind (Oeldorf-Hirsch 2018), which
implies that reading, sharing, and commenting on news on social platforms are acts
promoted by users. Boczkowski, Matassi, and Mitchelstein (2018) use practice theory
to research incidental news consumption on social media platforms and understand-
ing social media use as a kind of practice that incorporates accidental news consump-
tion. Similarly, Matassi, Boczkowski, and Mitchelstein (2019) focus on WhatsApp-related
practices to see how people “domesticate”Whatsapp, making use of its technological
affordances in their everyday life, thus creating practices based on their social experi-
ence and needs. Hence, the use of WhatsApp differs depending on the users’life
stage. While young adults use WhatsApp for socialization with friends based on imme-
diacy, for late adults this platform allows them to keep in contact with younger gener-
ations. Conversely, WhatsApp use by middle-aged adults is defined by work and care
responsibilities. But these everyday forms of communication practices studied by
Matassi, Boczkowski, and Mitchelstein (2019) do not directly represent deliberate news
consumption. They found that news “happens”in this environment as a natural com-
munication exchange with the three aforementioned age cohorts.
Therefore, engagement with news in closed environments such as WhatsApp, can-
not only be understood in relation to users’individual behaviour, but as a social
practice that acquires meaning at the group level, following a pattern similar to
users’engagement with other social media (Swart, Peters, and Broersma 2019),
based on its unique affordances. Hence, practice theory allows us to shed light on
the social component of WhatsApp-related practices: users send, receive and read
news, even commenting on them through this platform, but always as a by-product
of their messaging with other users who are either senders or recipients.
Furthermore, WhatsApp allows users to share news in a one-on-one exchange, or in
a group of friends/relatives, but it does not permit spreading the message for every-
one to see as in other social media. After all, more than any other social media,
WhatsApp was not designed with the news in mind. Its relevance for news nowadays
is attributable to its users’capacity to remediate a certain technology, adopting prac-
tices that they have been conducting in other online spaces (commenting,
sharing …) but within a space that has its own characteristics. Despite the large
body of research that has focussed its attention on users’engagement with news on
social media, there is still a lack of understanding of the experiential and meaning-
making practices conducted by users within “closed”or private online environments
such as WhatsApp.
The decision to share news with another user or in a group, or to comment on a
news story within a group is thus not the same as on other platforms. Hence, both
individual factors, as well as in-group social dynamics, are crucial to understanding
WhatsApp-related practices. Questions remain about how the interplay between indi-
vidual factors and in-group dynamics works in WhatsApp-related practices such as
sharing or commenting on news. To better understand the different practices associ-
ated with news engagement on WhatsApp we need to study the technological affor-
dances featured on this platform, as well as the particular meaning that news
engagement has on WhatsApp.
1064 P. MASIP ET AL.
Technological Affordances, News Engagement, and Social Endorsement
The term “affordance”was originally coined by psychologist James J. Gibson as a con-
ceptualization of an ecological approach to perception (Gibson 1977,1979). Since
then, its usage has expanded into other academic disciplines such as design, technol-
ogy, sociology, as well as media and communication studies. Among the five types of
affordance conceptualized by Bucher and Helmond (2018), we find the third type,
technological affordances, the most suitable for our purposes. Gaver (1991) adapted
the concept to the interaction between humans and information technology, arguing
that affordances are properties of the world defined with respect to people’s inter-
action with it (1991, 80), which, moreover, may be applied not only to the interaction
of the individual with information technology, but also encompass any social interac-
tions between humans and computing devices. If practice theory seeks to answer the
question, “what are people doing in relation with media?”,technological affordances as
a theoretical concept allows for a better understanding of the relationship between
the social networks and their users, how these users engage with the news, and the
use they make of this information.
The concept of “affordances”has become relevant in past decades for scholars
researching digital media and its social use (De Ridder, Vesni
c, and Romic
2016; Faraj and Azad 2012), although its multifaceted relational nature makes it diffi-
cult to establish an operational definition (Evans et al. 2017). Affordances are func-
tional and relational aspects that frame the relationship between technological
shaping and social practice (Livingstone 2008; Hutchby 2001), or according to Marwick
(2018), they signify what a user perceives as possibilities for action. According to Nagy
and Neff (2015), the concept is frequently used erroneously as a synonym of techno-
logical “features”(what a certain technology allows us to do), without taking into
account the social dimension (how social practice shapes a specific technology). In
this regard, technological affordances have a strong connection with practice theory,
as social practices are an important predictor of how technologies (and therefore
social media) are used. At the same time, technology provides social practices (De
c, and Romic 2016). It is precisely this reciprocal relationship that
characterizes the concept of technological affordances.
Prior research has found different affordances of social media platforms, although it
has predominantly focussed on Facebook (Jung and Sundar 2018). Burke, Kraut, and
Marlow (2011) identified three such affordances: communication with friends, news
consumption, and broadcasting. Sundar (2008) suggested four types of affordances:
modality, agency, interactivity, and navigability. The work of Sundar (Sundar and
Limperos 2013; Sundar 2008) links the concept of affordances with users’gratification,
understanding affordances as technological features that provide action possibilities
(Jung and Sundar 2018). Despite their valuable contributions to the debate, these
studies focus on social media that have different characteristics than WhatsApp. Our
approach foregrounds that WhatsApp facilitates different kinds of affordances, some
of them similar to the ones identified in former research on other social media, while
others have a more unique nature.
DIGITAL JOURNALISM 1065
Unlike Facebook or Twitter, messaging apps such as WhatsApp are closed online
spaces in which posts are not public, but sent to another contact or a pre-established
group. Therefore, interactions between users are mostly private, and engagement with
news mainly happens in an ecosystem of friends and acquaintances (Frankel 2018).
The privacy WhatsApp affords its users allows a more candid and unrestricted
exchange of messages as it occurs with individuals with whom one has “trusted ties”
(Yamamoto, Kushin, and Dalisay 2018). In addition to privacy, instant messaging serv-
ices also offer some important characteristics such as safety. Users feel protected
because they connect with groups set up by people who they already know or share
common interests with. Furthermore, WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption ensures that
only the people participating in a chat can read the messages that are exchanged.
Nobody outside, not even WhatsApp operatives, can read the messages. On
WhatsApp, users feel free and protected from algorithms. Algorithms affect how users
experience other social media sites (Bucher 2017), but this is not the case of
WhatsApp. Immediacy, which allows for a feeling of permanent contact, as well as
interactivity, are two affordances which provide a controlled environment for personal
interaction, but also “to receive, share, and discuss news with friends, colleagues, and
family in a more private setting”(Swart, Peters, and Broersma 2017, 1351). This closed
nature of WhatsApp is what makes engagement with news different than on
Traditionally, engagement with news has been defined by two factors: entering
into contact with news, or occupying attention or effort in relation with news for a
long time (Oh, Bellur, and Sundar 2018). Internet-based news consumption brought
interactivity into play (Suau 2015), changing the nature of news engagement with an
array of practices that implied users’activity in many different formats (Park and Kaye
2018). Suau (2015) classifies this into three levels: selective (users can organize or
choose the content they prefer to receive), participative (users can interplay with news
content by sharing it or commenting on it) or productive (users can produce or co-
produce their own content). Oh, Bellur, and Sundar (2018) highlight that the most
important aspect of engagement is what they call “social outreach”. This level of
engagement contributes to the spreading of news content by sharing it on different
social media, thereby affording the content the potential to “go viral”(Jenkins, Ford,
and Green 2013).
This phenomenon of spreading news is what has been called “secondary gate-
keeping”(Singer 2014), foregrounding the potential of individual users to affect the
traditionally hegemonic power of news media and journalists in being the gatekeepers
between news and audience (Guallar et al. 2016). Practices such as sharing news on
social media usually (but not always) entail social endorsement. Previous research has
found that users are more likely to resend content consistent with their political posi-
tions (Metaxas et al. 2015). On Twitter and Facebook, even Instagram, social endorse-
ment is also produced by “liking”certain messages/content (Anspach 2017; Borah and
Xiao 2018). The technological affordances of WhatsApp shape such practices of social
endorsement, allowing users to “endorse”news that they have consumed on other
platforms, or received through WhatsApp, by re-sending it to their groups or individ-
ual contacts. Another aspect of this endorsement might be to reply to the link sent by
1066 P. MASIP ET AL.
a contact by showing agreement with its content. As the platform does not include
the option to simply “like”the content, social endorsement on WhatsApp thus shows
great differences in user engagement compared to other social media environments.
In spite of the confidence-based context that characterizes WhatsApp, not all con-
tacts who share messages and news generate the same level of trust. Like on other
social media sites, some people have a moral authority among their contacts. An et al.
(2014) have shown that sharing news on social networks depends, among other fac-
tors, on the credibility of a news source, and whether the source is a friend or a news
outlet. Friends influence the perception of news on social networks (Dubois et al.
2020). Even users who prefer to receive news and links from family and friends, rather
than from journalists, tend to have greater faith in the recommendations of the peo-
ple they trust (Hermida et al. 2012). Influential news sharers have a substantial cap-
acity to affect acquaintances’news consumption (Ma et al. 2012).
In fact, the human factors that shape social endorsement of news content in closed
environments are critical in order to better understand which news spread and might
constitute key elements of public debate outside of the traditional control of news
media institutions (Suau 2015). We will take this into account by conceptualizing social
endorsement as a social practice that is common in WhatsApp groups, a practice that
goes beyond the individual act of sharing media content. Indeed, it showcases the
interplay between the different human factors existing in WhatsApp groups that might
contribute to shaping social endorsement. Moreover, studies focussed on the motiva-
tions beneath the practice of sharing news content show a disparity of results that
reflect the importance of personal factors apart from interest in public issues or media
engagement (Valenzuela, Pi~
na, and Ram
ırez 2017; Kalogeropoulos et al. 2017). The
dearth of studies that explore specific technological affordances of WhatsApp, and the
interplay between technological affordances and individual human factors and group
dynamics when sharing news on WhatsApp makes it necessary to address these
issues. Therefore, our research question one will be as follows:
RQ1 How are news consumption-related practices affected by WhatsApp’s technological
Another point of interest is the nature of the news shared via WhatsApp. Recent
political events, such as the Brexit referendum or the election of Bolsonaro in Brazil
raised fears about how information spreads on WhatsApp and the possible emergence
of echo-chambers with a particular political affinity in which citizens just receive ideo-
logically unchallenging news content (Sunstein 2018). Although it is true that there is
a tendency towards greater ideological like-mindedness among contacts, there does
exist a potential element for discordant voices to be heard on social media (Barber
et al. 2015). Some studies bear out these results, indicating that accidental exposure is
favoured, and exposure to alternative points of view is superior to what earlier
research suggested, reducing the importance of selective exposure on social networks
(Bakshy et al. 2012; Barber
a et al. 2015). Recent research also shows different effects
depending on users’characteristics, with those users with higher levels of public and
media engagement proving more likely to avoid ideological bubbles (Dubois and
Blank 2018; Gil de Z
niga, Weeks, and Ard
evol-Abreu 2017). The kind of social media,
and the number of contacts, also seem to be a variable to take into account when
DIGITAL JOURNALISM 1067
assessing the existence of filter bubbles (Fletcher and Nielsen 2018; Bechmann and
In what regards WhatsApp, research is still scarce. Internal features of closed envi-
ronments seem to create in users a false sense of confidence in the information
shared, and makes users more resistant to moderating or changing personal convic-
tions (Sharot 2017). Similarly, the fact that most contacts with whom they interact are
friends and acquaintances might reinforce patterns of selective exposure and the cre-
ation of echo-chambers of ideological or political affinity (Bakshy, Messing, and
Adamic 2015). Hence, the relationship between problematic content and closed plat-
forms is twofold. First, users become central in defining the creation and sharing of
information; and second, the confidence environment that characterizes WhatsApp
makes it difficult for users to develop a critical approach regarding problematic and
antagonistic content, particularly when the content questions one’s beliefs and values.
What is relevant here is that these personal factors, such as willingness to lead the
discussion or to affect others’opinions, are constructed socially and have a strong
effect on social endorsement (Hu et al. 2012; Wu et al. 2011; Ma, Lee, and Goh 2014;
Picone, De-Wolf, and Robijt 2016; Springer, Engelmann, and Pfaffinger 2015). Results
differ also depending on the social media site studied (Rosengard, Tucker-McLaughlin,
and Brown 2014; Yang et al. 2014), and how the technological affordances of closed
environments such as WhatsApp or Facebook groups influence social endorsement
(Swart, Peters, and Broersma 2019). Hence, human factors and technological affordan-
ces seem to interplay here, making it hard to arrive at a general conclusion that
accounts for the effects of WhatsApp in the creation of echo-chambers of political
affinity. Therefore, our research questions 2 and 3 intend to address these issues
related to social endorsement of news in WhatsApp as follows:
RQ2: How do individual factors and in-group social dynamics interplay with the practice
of social endorsement of news on WhatsApp?
RQ3: How might social endorsement of news on WhatsApp bring about actual
engagement with messages that are at odds with one’s ideological convictions?
This study uses focus groups with the aim of stimulating reflection on the part of the
participants on how they construct their own particular meaning by using the
WhatsApp messaging service. Focus groups and semi-structured interviews have been
widely used to explore how closed-platforms shape people’s experiences of news in
everyday life (Swart, Peters, and Broersma 2019; Matassi, Boczkowski, and Mitchelstein
2019). Both are particularly useful approaches in so far as WhatsApp resembles offline
communication patterns, and it is tailor-made for maintaining strong ties and social
support networks (Chan 2018).
In the course of February 2019, we conducted six focus group meetings in
Barcelona with eight members each (N¼48), and a duration of approximately two
hours. Mindful of the limitations when extrapolating results from focus group studies,
we strove to minimize issues of representativeness through selecting participants con-
trolling for age, sex, and educational level in line with previous research (Goh et al.
1068 P. MASIP ET AL.
2019; Wagner and Boczkowski 2019). There were six groups in three age-cohorts, 18
to 29, 30 to 49, and over 50. We conducted two focus groups in each age-cohort with
different educational backgrounds, those with a college education (50%), and those
with vocational training or other types of non-academic training (50%). Furthermore,
and in keeping with earlier studies (Guallar et al. 2016), we factored in two additional
criteria, namely media consumption (MC), and civic engagement (CE).
It was broadly established that to meet the requirement of civic engagement the
individuals had to be regularly involved in, members of, or linked to a political party,
trade union, NGO, cultural association, or social movement. 50% of participants ful-
filled these. Regarding media consumption, we predefined three levels of media fre-
quency of access: High media consumption (users who get news on a daily basis),
intermediate media consumption (users who get updates on 3 to 6 days per week),
and low media consumption (users who get news updates less than three times a
week). Participants were evenly distributed across these three categories.
Participants were recruited following the above-mentioned criteria from a consumer
panel by a research market firm, and they were paid e40 for their participation. They
were aware of their right to refuse participation and were told how the (anonymized)
data was used, and who would have access to it. They provided informed consent.
The sessions were moderated by a research assistant, using semi-structured ques-
tions to guide the discussion. The focus group discussions were video recorded, and
the contents transcribed.
A grounded approach was used to gather participants’opinions on four issues: (1)
what is regarded news nowadays, (2) news consumption, (3) disinformation and fake
news, and (4) WhatsApp and news consumption. Because of the vague nature of the
concept of news (i.e. Harcup and O’Neill 2017), at the beginning of the focus group
sessions, participants were invited to explain what they consider news. After this intro-
ductory step, and with the aim that all participants share the same definition of news
during the discussion sessions, the moderator provided a common definition of news.
It was a layperson definition of news, based on the classical definition by Gans (1980)
according to which news is understood as information about current and newsworthy
events, based on facts, which are claimed to be true, and which journalists have the
duty of “summarizing, refining, and altering what becomes available to them from
sources in order to make the information suitable for their audiences”and distributed
through different media: newspapers, TV, radio, online news sites, social media sites,
etc. This definition must be considered an operational definition that focusses on three
basic parameters relevant for the aims of the research: a) news is produced by journal-
ists, which allows it to be distinguished from other products with informational cap-
acity (tweets, events reported by individuals, information provided directly by sources,
etc.); b) news deals with events of social interest, leaving out information on private
matters or strictly interpersonal communication; and c) the news is disseminated
through institutionalized media, which are therefore subject to the ethical require-
ments and social responsibilities of professional journalism. This rationale allows for a
common definition of news for all participants and to distinguish it from any other
kind of information (i.e. Wikipedia, content retrieved from Google for cultural and
learning purposes, interpersonal exchange of ideas and data).
DIGITAL JOURNALISM 1069
Data was analysed by three researchers following an inductive approach with the
aim of identifying emerging categories related to the research topics and finding
meaning in participants’discourses. During the open coding phase, researchers coded
the transcripts line by line using QDA Miner to identify relevant categories of the phe-
nomena, and grouped all instances of them. During the axial coding phase, this evi-
dence was examined looking for subcategories and making connections among them
and also among categories. Results of the codification process were discussed in order
to reach a unanimous agreement on categorization. Subsequently, researchers dis-
cussed the categories that emerged, and they interpreted them using the core con-
cepts of practice theory (Glaser and Strauss 1967; Strauss and Corbin 1990).
In the focus groups, participants vivaciously discussed their news consumption habits
on WhatsApp, and how technological affordances and human factors affect their
engagement with news. In this section we describe the main results obtained, and
structure them into subsections in accordance with the three research questions
designed to guide the research.
Focus group sessions evidenced how indispensable WhatsApp is in participants’
daily lives. It is used intensively to communicate with family and friends, for work rea-
sons, but also as a way of accessing news. Research participants pointed out that
checking WhatsApp is one of the first things they do after waking up. Ester, a mother
of four, explains how important WhatsApp is: “One of the first things I do when I pick
up my phone is to check my WhatsApp messages. If I have notifications, I must check
them right away to find out what they say and what’s going on.”Arnau says, “First
thing in the morning I check my messages, even before getting up. Anything on
WhatsApp or Telegram? Any emails or messages on Facebook?”
Participants profess that this practice continues more or less incessantly throughout
the day, usually alongside or as part of another activity, just as in traditional media
consumption (listening to the radio while driving, watching TV while having
dinner …), the use of WhatsApp has a sense of a joint ritual or a practice that accom-
panies another activity.
Segmentation by Groups, Effects of Technological Affordance, and News
Consumption on WhatsApp
Our focus group participants, as typical inhabitants of a hybrid media system, did not
establish any distinction between traditional media outlets, social media, or any other
internet-based platform when we asked them which their preferred sources of infor-
mation were. News is accessed through all of them, in different contexts, but without
any noteworthy difference according to the participants’understanding. The first asso-
ciation with news consumption for most of them is social media or through the
Internet, and among these they include WhatsApp.
Hence, WhatsApp is seen as a source of news. But as a source of selected news,
not as a massive source of news like other social media. The feeling of being
1070 P. MASIP ET AL.
overwhelmed by information, which research participants have perceived on other
online platforms, is not as acute on WhatsApp. Information on the messaging app is
more filtered, more intimate, and less invasive. Sara, a bank employee, summarizes
this idea: “On Facebook, you post news regardless of whether others like or follow it.
On WhatsApp, you share news you think the addressee will be interested in”.
The Focus group sessions allowed us to pinpoint several factors related to techno-
logical affordances that might affect the use of WhatsApp as a source of news. The
main affordances identified in the current research represent privacy, personalization,
replicability and segmentation. All of them are in constant dialogue and affect each
other, mediating the relationship between users and news. Some affordances are
shared with other social media, but others are specific to WhatsApp, particularly
privacy and segmentation, which allow interaction with people you know on a one-
on-one basis, but also in groups created for different purposes. Other technological
affordances, like interactivity, immediacy, and multimedia, have also been identified,
but participants’discussion does not reveal a direct impact on news use. These
technological affordances are linked to a playful and entertaining use of WhatsApp.
The privacy that WhatsApp affords –especially in one-on-one conversations and in
groups with closer relationships–constitutes one of the specific technological affor-
dances which distinguish WhatsApp from other platforms. Joan, an employee at a
bank highlights, “On WhatsApp, only people who are in your contact list can send you
messages. ( …) It gives me the feeling of being able to screen better when I share
and receive messages”. Thus, the perception of privacy and security in WhatsApp
groups is based on trusted ties. Paradoxically, focus groups show that users are oblivi-
ous to the end-to-end encryption systems which WhatsApp boasts as its central safety
and privacy feature.
In addition to privacy, participants also stress that WhatsApp offers them the afford-
ance of personalization. In one of the focus groups the participants expressly fore-
grounded this feature and the way in which it sets WhatsApp apart from other social
Sara: On Facebook, people post things regardless of what you like, or if you follow
them. By contrast, on WhatsApp, your contacts send you news they think will
appeal to you.
Sandra: Yes, there is more of a filter.
Ale: It’s more personalized.
Sara: Yes, it’s more personal.
us: It’s more fragmented, broken down into parts, not everything all at once.
As we shall observe below, personalization plays a fundamental role in the social
endorsement of news, and it constitutes a common feature of instant messaging apps.
Although personalization is an attribute of other social media sites (i.e. DM on Twitter
or Instagram), participants concurred in acknowledging that it was on WhatsApp that
direct personal contact was most frequent. The personalization of content on
WhatsApp is intricately linked to replicability in that it allows users to share and reuse
content sent to them by other users. Replicability is not, of course, a feature that is
DIGITAL JOURNALISM 1071
exclusive to WhatsApp. There is an abundance of content that goes viral, both on
open platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Tik Tok, Instagram, etc. and on closed plat-
forms like WhatsApp. Telegram, or line, for instance. However, according to our partici-
pants, it is on WhatsApp where replicability is put to use most frequently, in particular
in large groups whose members are not very closely acquainted. Thus, Cris, a conci-
erge, declares [regarding content she receives via large WhatsApp groups], that “the
more members there are in the group, the more restrained and cautious people are.
People are less familiar with each other.”To which Esther, from the same focus group,
adds, “…and there is more chaos inside these large groups.”
That way, news stories are shared tailor-made thanks to personal acquaintance with
the interlocutor. Ester, assistant nurse and mother of four, states: “On WhatsApp [I
shared a piece of news] about the diabetes vaccine with my mother. She is diabetic,
and she needs this information.”
Participants have a twofold perception of WhatsApp and news. On the one hand,
WhatsApp is perceived as a platform for quality news, in which relevant updates can
be accessed, since it is sent to you by people you personally know, people who know
what may interest you, and who want you to receive it directly and immediately: “My
dad and I don’t send each other photos of events that happened in America. We share
news on local politics or sports. My mother and I send each other cooking recipes or
things like that, things that she likes doing and wants to share with me,”says Arnau, a
Along the same lines, user engagement with news revolves around isolated news
stories, not with the news media as such. WhatsApp is understood as an app that
allows communication with friends and social groups, at times with colleagues on job-
related issues, but not as a platform to interact with news media institutions.
Engagement with news is, thus, reliant on individual and human factors that go
beyond the nature of the text, or the news item in question.
However, the participants are equally aware that WhatsApp is used to propagate
unreliable information: chain letters, fake news, trivial news, sensationalism, etc. This
type of content is likely to be shared in larger groups, and groups of co-workers and
acquaintances. These groups are made up of people who deliberately want to gener-
ate controversy, and of people with "poor judgment":”I can’t help thinking that there
are people who need this like a drug, spreading false information and generating con-
flict and wreaking havoc. They definitely get a kick out of it,”muses a participant.
The twofold perception of WhatsApp and news is strongly linked to the size and
type of groups that can be created within WhatsApp, a technological affordance which
is unique to this platform. Segmentation affordance of WhatsApp allows users to inter-
act one-on-one or in groups. Particularly, WhatsApp allows people to gather in groups
of a maximum of 256.
There are two kinds of groups on WhatsApp according to our results. First, groups in
which users are gathered for a specific reason or goal. These can be very diverse, but
normally there is a clear understanding among users that they are members of that
group because of certain shared circumstances: because they are members of a sports
club, parents of one’s kid’s classmates, colleagues at work, neighbourhood or home-
owner associations …The possibilities are almost infinite, but what matters here is that
1072 P. MASIP ET AL.
users gather in such groups because their creation obeys a practical quotidian reason.
Such groups self-regulate, in the sense that messages that veer from the group’s central
purpose are identified as misplaced and are asked to be deleted. Moreover, if this kind
of regulation is carried out consistently, it reinforces users’levels of self-censorship.
News content is considered irrelevant in these groups, unless it is related to the specific
purpose of the group. Aurelio, a salesman, declares: “Well, one thing’s for sure, politics
and football are off limits, or else things can go sideways.”Similarly, Mila, an administra-
tive employee, also emphasizes that in WhatsApp groups with clearly defined purposes
members know the limits: “If you are in a group with the members of your choir, the
chat is about the choir. If someone is out of line, they’ll be told off.”
Second, there are groups whose creation does not obey a specific routine purpose.
Examples from our focus groups sessions include family groups, friends from high school,
former workmates that still meet from time to time, friends who share a certain pastime,
and so on. What matters here is that group members share something other than just a
routine activity or a common goal. This is relevant for the purpose of this research
because such groups are normally not self-regulated. Therefore, news content is more
likely to spread as users of these groups are constantly commenting on different issues.
Such groups are less focussed, and their content may entail almost any subject.
Research participants show clear trends in categorizing WhatsApp groups, and they
associate checking different groups with different times of the day, depending on the
sense of urgency that they attribute to them, or the specific context in which the
activity takes place. Family groups, as well as direct messages from close friends and
relatives, are assigned a higher priority. But depending on the time of the day, work-
related groups or groups dealing with logistics or social life (e.g. the parents of one’s
kid’s classmates, or leisure time related groups) also become important. The messages
that do not carry a special sense of urgency, or are shared in groups that are catego-
rized as secondary in importance, are “stored”or “silenced”to be checked when some
free time is available. News content routinely falls into this category. Therefore,
engagement with news on WhatsApp is a practice that happens within this context:
as an activity of secondary importance and on a platform on which users get in touch
with relatives, friends, and other social groups.
In keeping with previous studies (i.e. Karapanos, Teixeira, and Gouveia 2016;
Matassi, Boczkowski, and Mitchelstein 2019), our research suggests that participants
experience a heightened sense of presence in the communication as they wait for an
immediate response from the group’s members. Immediacy is a technological afford-
ance WhatsApp has in common with other social media. However, with respect to the
engagement of users with the news, synchronous communication practices play a sec-
ondary role. Reading recommended news is set aside for quiet moments of the day.
Our results indicate that segmentation by groups is a distinctive WhatsApp techno-
logical affordance that affects the rest of the affordances we detected: a) it is clearly
decisive for privacy of the socially closest groups, and even more so in one-on-one
conversations; b) the hierarchy that tacitly rules WhatsApp groups modulates the
immediacy in the consultation of shared content; and c) this hierarchy also modulates
interaction, which, unlike on open platforms, is established only between users, organ-
ized in different types of groups, but not between users and news outlets.
DIGITAL JOURNALISM 1073
Social Endorsement of News on WhatsApp: A Source-Related Issue
As we have seen, the practice of checking WhatsApp appears to be strongly shaped
by a mental attitude in users that helps to confer a certain hierarchy on the messages
received from different users and groups: news media content is hierarchized depend-
ing on who sent it. The hierarchy attributed to the sender works as a human factor
that influences the priority for the message to be read as well as the possibilities for
the content to be trusted and forwarded to other contacts or groups. Carmenxu, an
accountant and mother of three, says: “It depends on who shares the news with you.
With some people you know that the information is reliable, and with others you
don’t(…) this is very personal, sure. You know that particular person, the circles they
move in, what group they belong to. You know that this person is likely to share a
certain kind of information. Often, I don’t even click on the link. That all depends on
the relationship with the sender.”
As our results indicate, social endorsement is linked to individual messages.
Research participants receive individual messages with news content from those con-
tacts with whom they have stronger personal connections. As a result, they read the
news stories included in these messages, as well as trust in their content, thereby rein-
forcing the possibilities to re-disseminate it.
People tend to minimize their cognitive effort and time devoted to searching infor-
mation and verifying it (Lang 2000), and familiar sources are judged to be more cred-
ible than unfamiliar sources, regardless of message characteristics such as argument
quality (O’Keefe 1990). As a result of oftentimes unfounded trust in the sender,
WhatsApp users share and amplify the scope of misleading information, albeit sharing
the news in good faith, with the intention of providing trusted information to their
friends and followers.
Participants underline the importance of social ties when they comment on instan-
ces of having sent or received fake news, since they are concerned about the possibil-
ity of losing trust or credibility. Montse, an administrative employee, describes a
situation she experienced recently: “If a person sends me news on politics, I share it
with two or three of my contacts who I know share my political views. And sometimes
they get back to me telling me that the news was inaccurate. When that happens, I
immediately acknowledge that I was wrong, and I tell the others that I sent them false
Aurelio has the same concerns: “A friend sends me fake news. And I tell him, wait a
minute. That doesn’t sound right! You’ve been had. Please, double check, and let me
know what you find out. And indeed, after a while he calls me and says: hey, you
were right, that was actually not true. Of course, if I had believed it like he did, and I
had passed it on my family, friends and others, this piece of fake news would have
spread like wildfire”
Interestingly, the importance of social ties in social endorsement of news is a com-
mon trait. News shared directly by relatives and closer friends are perceived as more
credible and are read more often than stories shared in groups and by people with
weak ties. Esther distinguishes between WhatsApp and other social media: “On
WhatsApp, news is shared by people who trust each other more. If my mom sends
1074 P. MASIP ET AL.
me a piece of news, she is sure that this story is true. For me, this story shared by my
mom is more credible than if I find it on Facebook”.
As we have seen, social ties are important in social endorsement of news. However,
in some cases, personal traits can affect sender trustworthiness. Xavi exemplifies this
trend:”If my brother sends it to me, I don’t fact-check. If it is from my parents, then
I’ll take a closer look. Maybe it is because they’re not digital natives like we are, and
they aren’t used to dealing with all kinds of content”.
According to the results of the focus groups, the existing offline social dynamics
are decisive for the practice of social endorsement of news on WhatsApp, especially in
the case of the most intimate and personal social relationships. In any case, the
endorsement of news occurs in those contexts of social relationships, in which sharing
or commenting on news is not an end in itself but is part of the broader context of
social relationships between users. This trend differs from the two-step flow communi-
cation model insofar as the endorsement of news is not based on the leadership of
the senders, or their ascendency over the community or social groups. Rather, it is
done individually and it is based on mutual personal knowledge between sender and
receiver. Because of the closed nature of WhatsApp groups, the role of opinion leader
is irrelevant in that the sender does not try to persuade the receiver, because both
already share the same judgements and political beliefs.
Fostering Echo Chambers on WhatsApp
The results evidence that closer social connections are established with users with
whom citizens share more political and ideological values. David, a petrol station
attendant, mostly prefers to associate with politically like-minded people: “…you tend
to hang out with people who are on your wavelength. Not always, but in your circle
of acquaintances, the people you hang out with on a daily basis tend to share your
ideology more or less.”
WhatsApp groups that comprise relatives or close friends are more ideologically
homogeneous. In a certain way, small groups of acquaintances and friends act as
echo-chambers. Conversely, since in bigger groups there is more ideological hetero-
geneity, they facilitate more incidental exposure to diverse opinions. However, the
content received there is perceived as “noise”or as less pertinent information. David,
the aforementioned petrol station attendant, states: “Depends on the group. You
might keep up a chat with seven or eight people you’ve been friends with all your
life, or you might be in a chat with 400 members and you have no idea who that per-
son is who just posted a piece of news”
Along the same lines Cristina says: “As far as I’m concerned, the more participants
there are, the less I trust …there are just too many unfamiliar people”, and for Ester,
“it’s just not the same sharing a chat with your mom, your granny, and close family,
than a chat with a friend of a friend, whom you have only met once, or know just
Along with the size of the groups, the same hierarchical aspects we foregrounded
earlier regulate the chances for social endorsement of ideologically challenging news.
The most intimate groups reinforce social ties, based on the prior confidence of the
DIGITAL JOURNALISM 1075
sender even in political matters. The following extract exemplifies this. Jenifer, a pet
carer, avoids news and sources that are at odds with her politics: “I might send it to
someone who shares my political views …and if my boyfriend or a friend sends it to
me, something they know I’ll like and which I am interested in …if it comes from
them, then I know these are articles that appeal to me and are reliable”. Sara, the
aforementioned bank employee, highlights the role of users as content curators:
“WhatsApp is not a source of information. It’s used for sharing news with the groups
you are in. You send the news to the groups because you know you are sending it to
like-minded people. It’s a way of filtering/screening the news”.
News received in big groups are viewed with little trust, while content received in
small groups with higher levels of interpersonal trust is readily believed. In these big
groups, the mere exposure to politically or ideologically diverse information, in an
accidental or deliberate way, may not result in actual engagement with these con-
tents, nor can they be considered as endorsement or acceptance of the contents. Jos
underlines the degree of heterogeneity of the information shared in these kinds of
groups: “I am in several chats, and one consists of former colleagues. These guys will
send me outrageous stuff, saying this news came from this or that website. And you
go online, and you check and it’s a hoax. But in these groups, this is a common situ-
ation. They expect you to pass it on to others, in order to stir things up, I guess”.
In large groups, WhatsApp users act according to the same biases as those
described by the academic literature about other platforms. Confirmation bias has
been detected in focus group sessions. This extract from Kevin, a deliveryman, repre-
sents a common belief among research participants: “They broke this story about the
politician, Pablo Iglesias (leader of Podemos, a leftist party), who allegedly bought a
big house in a natural park. But then it turned out to be fake news. And it did not
matter, all the right wing followers were sharing the story and criticizing him,
although it was all a lie”. These results are already known regarding other social media
sites (Quattrociocchi, Scala, and Sunstein 2016), and these findings are borne out by
our data in the case of WhatsApp, where news received is processed according to
cognitive bias mechanisms. When users receive news that is antagonistic to their con-
victions, they assess them strictly according to their beliefs. Carlos stresses the emo-
tional component in judging news stories: “If you identify with a particular ideology or
party, then you see it all differently. It affects you more and changes the way you see
things”. Indeed, this view is echoed by other participants who recognize that they try
to avoid news and debates that challenge their convictions, and they have a notion
that truth is what people wish to be true. Ester trivializes the concept of truth: “Truth
is relative”. In fact, one of the most robust conclusions of our analysis of our partici-
pants’interlocutions is that they regard core beliefs and emotions as tantamount
Disinformation: I’m Immune, but They Are Not
Along the same lines, participants tend not to read counter-attitudinal content, nor do
they customarily verify potentially false content received on WhatsApp. Participants
suggest that they are very often exposed to news they don’t agree with (which are at
odds with their core beliefs), but that simply means that the news reporting is
1076 P. MASIP ET AL.
tendentious, according to the editorial line of the respective source, which is some-
thing to be expected. Respondents feel vulnerable to biased content and do not
regard themselves immune to disinformation. However, there are exceptions: Carlos
asserts: “I believe that we are never one hundred percent informed. But in keeping
with your ideology and beliefs, you think that you are well-informed, because you
hold on to your views and this is not going to change because of another person or a
piece of information, you know what I’m saying? So, I think that in my way of thinking
I am well-informed.”Carlos thus acknowledges the existence of cognitive bias as such
but thinks that he himself is not susceptible to it. Across the board participants feel
that others are more biased than themselves. Aurelio declares: “I’m concerned about
the rate of fake news. It doesn’t affect me, mind you, because so far, they have not
been able to fool me in any way, ever. I am sceptical from the outset, and I must
have a clear picture before I believe anything. Though I do worry because young peo-
ple will believe anything …”
Conversely, Jenifer highlights that for her age and education are important factors
when it comes to trusting in information one receives via messaging app: “If my mom
receives information and then re-shares it, it’s not a matter of whether she likes it or
believes it. The thing is that my mom was raised in a certain way, by watching certain
TV stations, that have convinced her to believe what they tell her. So, she is wary of
WhatsApp allows users to come into contact with content that is at odds with their
ideological convictions, but this occurs in large and heterogeneous groups, not in the
most private groups. Thus, the social endorsement of news in large WhatsApp groups
is similar to that of other platforms, with similar cognitive biases, while in small
groups, WhatsApp users find a sphere of privacy and affinity that can foster ideo-
Thus, it would seem that some measures designed to combat disinformation have
a rather limited capacity if we bear in mind that the majority of users do not (want to)
believe that they themselves are gullible or credulous, but they do consider this a
danger for others.
This article has approached users’engagement with news on WhatsApp through the
perspective of practice theory. Focus group discussions help us to understand the
importance of WhatsApp in citizens’everyday life, with three interconnected factors
that aid in the understanding of how users construct meaning of news received via
WhatsApp: technological affordances of the platform, individual human factors, and in-
group social dynamics. Our results point towards several key trends in which these
three factors interplay with each other, shaping the configuration of participants’
engagement with news on WhatsApp, clearly distinguishing this closed platform from
other open proprietary and non-proprietary environments in which news
The element which we have identified as unique to WhatsApp over the course of
our research into the technological affordances is the option of segmentation into
DIGITAL JOURNALISM 1077
groups which this messaging service affords. According to the participants, segmenta-
tion not only determines significantly how the app is used, but it also seems to deter-
mine other affordances we have identified such as privacy, immediacy, personalization,
We also found that the group size and the social links that exist between its mem-
bers thus emerge as the key elements in the way group members use the app in gen-
eral, and how they consume and engage with news in particular.
Our results stress the importance of WhatsApp as a source of news in an everyday
life context. However, participants’news consumption is associated with the social
practice of “checking WhatsApp”couched in a context of entertainment or everyday
practical purposes rather than perceiving the app as a news source in itself. Our
results contribute here to the body of literature that intends to analyse messaging on
WhatsApp as a routine practice (Matassi, Boczkowski, and Mitchelstein 2019), which
must be viewed apart from conscious decisions of news consumption or media reper-
toires (Swart, Peters, and Broersma 2019). Engagement with news needs to be under-
stood here as engagement not with media brands or with news media institutions,
but with news items or news stories individually. News on WhatsApp has a high social
component: users receive them because a sender has sent them to a specific
addressee. This is especially characteristic of small groups with strong trust ties among
its members, who share curated messages designed for a specific person rather than
for a social group, as it is wont in open, less private social media platforms. In this
way, the unique sender-addressee relationship conditions and reinforces the trust-
worthiness and social endorsement of the news, as users tend to read, trust, or resend
stories shared by contacts that they think are trustworthy. As a matter of fact, our
research suggests that among participants trust in the sender might be of greater
importance than the original source of the news, understood as the news media entity
which originally broke or ran the story.
Traditional media are the main source of news on WhatsApp, but their positions of
authority or relevance in daily life shifts towards a less central position (Suau 2015). Our
results also indicate significant implications for future research on WhatsApp, which is
commonly viewed and studied as a social media platform, with research focussing on
issues such as news consumption, re-dissemination, or selective exposure (Swart, Peters,
and Broersma 2019). Focus group sessions displayed trends that point towards a differ-
ent use of WhatsApp which distinguishes this platform from other news sharing envi-
ronments. Whereas on social media, audiences have been identified as secondary
gatekeepers of media content (Singer 2014), on WhatsApp the symbolic power of the
sender grows and influences issues of trustworthiness and social endorsement of news.
This suggests a particular conceptualization of the sender-addressee relationship
because each unique practice of news selection and redistribution must take into
account the individual profile of each receiver that he or she intends to influence.
This model of news redistribution generates multiple currents of information,
almost equalling the number of recipients. In a certain way, instead of featuring a sin-
gle timeline, as we know it from other social media, WhatsApp affords users to engage
with multiple personalized timelines. These timelines are defined by the senders in
accordance with what they perceive to be appealing to each recipient.
1078 P. MASIP ET AL.
Previous research has identified the correlation between the degree of sender trust
and the degree of news engagement (Nekmat et al. 2019), which are closely linked to
the mechanisms that determine trust in social media in general (Goluchowski et al.
2017). In the case of WhatsApp, though, the selection and redistribution of content
becomes a practice conducted by one citizen aimed at influencing another one, rather
than a general post in a timeline. The affordance of creating small groups with tight
social ties and, above all, one-on-one interaction, boosts the capacity to send and
receive a curated, bespoke, news feed that appeals to the individual user. Depending
on the level of trust the sender possesses, news is more or less likely to be endorsed.
Thus, one of the key factors that determine the degree of influence is the interper-
sonal relationship between ordinary users (Cha et al. 2010).
Conversely, among the focus group participants, incidental exposure to ideologic-
ally or politically diverse news content tends to happen in bigger groups, not in pri-
vate, one-on-one chats. Therefore, when analysing news sharing on WhatsApp, it is
crucial to move beyond distinctions of incidental and non-incidental news consumers,
as is the common practice when studying social media (Fletcher and Nielsen 2018).
We found that incidental exposure is part of the practice of “checking WhatsApp”.
However, if this incidental consumption may lead to exposure to ideologically diverse
content, then it is something strongly shaped by human factors. In contrast to what
usually happens in other environments (Sch€
afer 2015), on WhatsApp, people who
share this kind of news know that the addressee is going to be sympathetic and
receptive to the specific content. Private messages containing news content on
WhatsApp are not usually aimed at initiating political debates or sharing ideologically
diverse information. On the contrary. The privacy and ideological affinity that charac-
terizes individual messages disappears in group chats, as WhatsApp groups are not
always made up of people who know each other very well, or who share the same
political views. Nevertheless, this does not increase the odds of social news endorse-
ment in bigger groups, although they are more likely to produce incidental exposure.
Human factors affect online chats in very similar ways as they do in private conversa-
tions, and users access, assess, and socially endorse news content depending on the
trust they have in the sender, even in larger-sized groups. What is more, in contrast to
what previous research on other social media platforms has observed (Gil de Z
and Valenzuela 2011; Valenzuela, Bachmann, and Bargsted 2021), groups with numer-
ous, more heterogeneous participants, do not generate greater civic engagement.
Despite the affordances that seem advantageous for fostering dialogue, which one
might expect in a private and protected setting such as a WhatsApp group, this spe-
cific environment is seldom used as a venue for ideological discussion and debate.
In conclusion, we found that human factors interact with technological affordances
of the application, shaping an environment in which individuals have a greater role
than news media in traditional news consumption. In effect, engagement with news
and social endorsement on WhatsApp proves to be similar to concepts such as
“networked individualism”(Rainie and Wellman 2012)or“private sphere”(Papacharissi
2010). Accidental exposure is minimal, and when it does happen, its effects are lim-
ited. Hence, an individual user’s network of contacts is decisive in shaping the infor-
mation he or she receives. The value of interpersonal trust detected in WhatsApp
DIGITAL JOURNALISM 1079
news consumption patterns also raises several concerns about how disinformation and
misinformation spread on the platform. Further research needs to shed light on how
interpersonal factors of trust create specific dynamics on news-sharing platforms,
which is crucial in gaining deeper insight into the way disinformation spreads.
The authors declare no conflict of interests. This research has been partially funded by
WhatsApp Inc. WhatsApp has played no role in directing and conduction the research, nor has
had any influence over the authors.
This work was supported by the Ministerio de Ciencia, Innovaci
on y Universidades (Spain)
RTI2018-095775-BC44 and WhatsApp Misinformation and Social Science Research Awards.
Pere Masip http://orcid.org/0000-0002-8231-0824
Jaume Suau http://orcid.org/0000-0003-4480-4441
Carles Ruiz-Caballero http://orcid.org/0000-0002-1395-2145
Pablo Capilla http://orcid.org/0000-0001-9455-3746
Klaus Zilles http://orcid.org/0000-0001-6120-1592
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