WhatsApp used in research, but is this ethical?

By Danélia Botes

March 15, 2023

Globally, WhatsApp Messenger has emerged as one of the world’s fastest-growing MIM applications. It has particularly high penetration rates in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil and South Africa.

The sub-Saharan African region is characterized by mixed migration flows and multiple health challenges, due to the inequalities experienced in access to healthcare disproportionately affect many groups including migrants and mobile populations. Given the existing structural factors impeding access to healthcare, coupled with high rates of mobile telephone use across the sub-Saharan African region; mobile phones are consistently recognized as having great potential for improving access to healthcare in this context.

WhatsApp was largely used in one of two ways for health research; to send hyperlinks to online surveys, or to deliver and evaluate, either an intervention designed for healthcare users or a communication programme for healthcare providers.

Challenges include efforts taken to ensure privacy, confidentiality and anonymity when using WhatsApp as a data collection tool; significant gender divide in access to mobile phones, with men being far more likely to have access to a device than women; features in WhatsApp that could potentially allow some encrypted messages to be read by unintended recipients, compounding the possible breaches of WhatsApp data.

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