What most people miss about WhatsApp

Fortune’s Most Powerful Women are here! Also: What race is a kidney, how to better attract young, first-gen talent, and do you value peace over truth? Plus, a bonus track from our colleague Jonathan Vanian on why the diaspora communities who rely on WhatsApp are at risk.

But first, here’s your pop culture week in review, in Haiku.

You know we live in 
interesting times when the
online, always-on

conversations (are 
there any other kind these 
days?) are chonky bears,

bad kidney friends, and
a show about losers (at

But lo: It’s sweater
weather! Go outside and get
your pumpkin spice on

and kick through some leaves.
Or, you could keep looking for
Amelia Earhart.

Wishing you a weekend filled with good friends and fresh air.

Ellen McGirt

In brief

For some people, Facebook’s WhatsApp is just another messaging service, nearly indistinguishable from the countless other communication apps that fill our smartphones.

But for diaspora communities in the U.S., WhatsApp is the predominant way certain immigrants communicate with family members and friends. As the Pew Research Center has shown, Hispanic Americans are far more likely to use WhatsApp than other messaging apps, for instance.

What makes WhatsApp different from your smartphone’s standard chat tool, however, is that the service encrypts, or scrambles, people’s communications. Other so-called encrypted messaging apps include Telegram and Signal.

This encryption feature has made WhatsApp and likeminded messaging apps popular with privacy advocates, researchers, and journalists who find comfort that people’s communications can be safeguarded from unscrupulous third parties. That same encryption feature, however, has posed a challenge for public health officials and watchdog groups who are trying to monitor the flow of COVID-19 misinformation on WhatsApp, as NPR has previously reported.

For diaspora communities that primarily rely on WhatsApp and other encrypted messaging apps, this flow of misinformation is posing a serious problem, as University of Texas researchers have explained in an article about their studies published by The Brookings Institute. As the researchers described, bad actors who spread misinformation on encrypted messaging apps gain an advantage in having their lies and mistruths amplified, because these apps function as the digital pipes in which family conversations flow.

“Compared to the relative publicity of major social media platforms with fact-checking or other content moderation regimes, disinformation may travel further and more unencumbered,” the authors wrote.

João Vicente Seno Ozawa, a researcher at the University of Texas who is studying disinformation and diasporas, told Fortune that his team is talking to community leaders involved with various diaspora communities who are trying to monitor the spread of disinformation; this content has generally focused on anti-President Joe Biden messaging and COVID-19 misinformation.

Ozawa communicates with his Brazilian family members using WhatsApp, and he occasionally comes across misinformation, sometimes in the form of memes, that has been shared with him, particularly involving the country’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.

One reason Brazilian diasporas in the U.S. are using WhatsApp is because of the app’s prominence in Brazil. While sending text messages in the U.S. can be very cheap for the typical American, that’s not the case in Brazil, thus making the free WhatsApp more attractive for citizens to use.

It’s an aspect of globalization that Facebook’s executives likely did not see coming. The company’s free messaging app in countries like Brazil became so popular that even the immigrants who came to the U.S. still rely on those apps to talk to loved ones. But the encrypted nature of WhatsApp means that Facebook can’t stop misinformation from spreading on the service, leaving its users plagued with malicious content that is being shared by people they trust.

There’s hope, however, in that the University of Texas researchers and others are developing software tools to help WhatsApp users better track what may be misleading content. Nevertheless, these tools can only monitor the spread of certain content in public WhatsApp groups as opposed to the private messages sent between family members.

Because of the encrypted nature of WhatsApp, University of Texas researcher Martin J. Riedl said, “We cannot quantify that this is a much bigger problem there than in say, Facebook writ large.”

That said, these researchers know that misinformation is spreading on chat apps like WhatsApp, thus affecting diaspora communities based on their studies. How to effectively deal with this issue remains to be solved.


Jonathan Vanian 

On point

Fortune’s Most Powerful Women list is here The franchise is beloved for a reason. As a snapshot in time, this year is a powerful reminder that the lives of even very powerful women are uniquely fraught. Five of the women in the top ten became CEO during the pandemic, including raceAhead treasures Roz Brewer, CEO Walgreen’s Boots Alliance and Thasunda Brown Duckett, President and CEO of TIAA. The full list, and the remarkable stories, are here. I’d like to also flag the “ones to watch” list, 9 women who are breaking new ground in every field from tech to finance, including Aicha Evans, the first Black woman to start (and sell) a self-driving car company.

Speaking of kidneys... Writer Jennifer Tsai deserves all the flowers for this meticulously reported piece about kidney disease, organ transplant protocols, and race. It focuses on a specific test used to measure something called glomerular filtration rate, or eGFR, an estimation of kidney function that determines when someone in the U.S. is eligible for a transplant. The lower the number, the sicker you are. This test was born after a 1999 study of 1,500 patients identified that high levels of creatinine in the blood were a useful marker for failing kidneys. Researchers reasoned, however, that because as a whole the Black people in the study (a miracle, if you think about it) had higher levels of creatinine levels than the white people, that Black bodies simply make more creatinine than white ones. As a result, a race-based screen was added to the eGFR, which means that “Black” people are assigned a higher number than white ones with the exact same level of disease. Don’t believe me? Ask Jordan Crowley, a delightful sounding 18-year-old man with one Black grandparent who will likely die on dialysis. “A white Jordan has a GFR of 17—low enough to secure him a spot on the organ waitlist,” says Tsai. “A Black Jordan has a GFR of 21.” 

How to boost applications from first-generation college students First-generation students often know few people close to them who have college experience, which can make navigating the selection and application process uniquely challenging. But virtual tours, an innovation of the COVID age, might be a good way to attract promising candidates. But only, warns this fascinating piece, if the tours are able to address the needs and concerns that first-gen students have. But what are they? The Chronicle of Higher Education asked a handful of future freshmen what they're looking for in a college and the specific things they were listening for in a college tour. Their answers were fascinating — and might inspire anyone looking to expand their intern pool via virtual tours and onboarding to re-think your process.

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz.

On Background

Mad men, furious women I cannot do better than the title of this brutal substack missive from Zoe Scaman, founder of strategy studio Bodacious. It is one part anti-workplace violence manifesto, filled with useful links and research on the rampant misogyny and harassment perpetrated against women in the advertising and agency fields. But it is peppered with first-hand accounts of trauma experienced by many women in “boys will be boys” workplace environments that are deeply shocking. While the experience of Black women as targets of abuse are mentioned by way of reference, the first person accounts come from primarily white women — a damning indictment of the whiteness of these spaces.
Zoe Scaman

Could you kindly allow me to be less nice? This piece powerfully encapsulates the interior monolog that many women of color and other underrepresented people endure in the workforce; in this case the mental gymnastics required to accommodate an expectation to be “nice” in a way that signals assimilation to a primarily white and conflict-averse cultural norm. Tami Jackson, an instructional designer for inclusion consultancy The Winters Group, is clear, direct, and yes, kind in her critique: Niceness is expected though rarely rewarded, and welcoming vibes are promptly revoked as soon as person of color advocates for themselves. “Niceness is often performative, niceness is subjective, and the expectations of niceness have been weaponized to silence the voices of Black women and other marginalized people in our country when we fail to make members of the dominant group feel comfortable or refuse to remain agreeable to circumstances that harm us,” she writes, providing powerful personal examples. But because she is an instructional designer, she also offers really helpful prompts! Food for thought: Are you a "peace over truth" or a "truth over peace" kind of person? Click through to find out.
The Inclusion Solution blog


Mood board

RaceAhead-Amelia Earhart
(Original Caption) California: Sitting On Top Of The World (To Her). Amelia Earhart Putnam, America's ace woman flyer, seated atop the cockpit of the twin-motored, all-metal, Lockheed-Elecktra monoplane, she will use as a flying laboratory, under the auspices of Purdue University. The picture was made shortly after delivery of the ship at the Union Air Terminal, Burbank, California. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

This is the web version of raceAheadFortune’s daily newsletter on race, culture, and inclusive leadership. To get it delivered daily to your inbox, sign up here.

Read More

CEO DailyCFO DailyBroadsheetData SheetTerm Sheet