(The Guardian) What’s wrong with WhatsApp
As social media has become more inhospitable, the appeal of private online groups has grown. But they hold their own dangers – to those both inside and out.
In the spring, as the virus swept across the world and billions of people were compelled to stay at home, the popularity of one social media app rose more sharply than any other. By late March, usage of WhatsApp around the world had grown by 40%. In Spain, where the lockdown was particularly strict, it rose by 76%. In those early months, WhatsApp – which hovers neatly between the space of email, Facebook and SMS, allowing text messages, links and photos to be shared between groups – was a prime conduit through which waves of news, memes and mass anxiety travelled.
At first, many of the new uses were heartening. Mutual aid groups sprung up to help the vulnerable. Families and friends used the app to stay close, sharing their fears and concerns in real time. Yet by mid-April, the role that WhatsApp was playing in the pandemic looked somewhat darker. A conspiracy theory about the rollout of 5G, which originated long before Covid-19 had appeared, now claimed that mobile phone masts were responsible for the disease. Across the UK, people began setting fire to 5G masts, with 20 arson attacks over the Easter weekend alone.
WhatsApp, along with Facebook and YouTube, was a key channel through which the conspiracy theory proliferated. Some feared that the very same community groups created during March were now accelerating the spread of the 5G conspiracy theory. Meanwhile, the app was also enabling the spread of fake audio clips, such as a widely shared recording in which someone who claimed to work for the NHS reported that ambulances would no longer be sent to assist people with breathing difficulties.
This was not the first time that WhatsApp has been embroiled in controversy. While the “fake news” scandals surrounding the 2016 electoral upsets in the UK and US were more focused upon Facebook – which owns WhatsApp – subsequent electoral victories for Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Narendra Modi in India were aided by incendiary WhatsApp messaging, exploiting the vast reach of the app in these countries. In India, there have also been reports of riots and at least 30 deaths linked to rumours circulating on WhatsApp. India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has sought ways of regulating WhatsApp content, though this has led to new controversies about government infringement on civil liberties.
As ever, there is a risk of pinning too much blame for complex political crises on an inert technology. WhatsApp has also taken some steps to limit its use as a vehicle for misinformation. In March, a WhatsApp spokesperson told the Washington Post that the company had “engaged health ministries around the world to provide simple ways for citizens to receive accurate information about the virus”. But even away from such visible disruptions, WhatsApp does seem to be an unusually effective vehicle for sowing distrust in public institutions and processes.
A WhatsApp group can exist without anyone outside the group knowing of its existence, who its members are or what is being shared, while end-to-end encryption makes it immune to surveillance from third parties. Back in Britain’s pre-Covid-19 days, when Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn were the issues that provoked the most feverish political discussions, speculation and paranoia swirled around such groups. Media commentators who defended Corbyn were often accused of belonging to a WhatsApp group of “outriders”, co-ordinated by Corbyn’s office, which supposedly told them what line to take. Meanwhile, the Conservative party’s pro-Brexit European Research Group was said to be chiefly sustained in the form of a WhatsApp group, whose membership was never public. Secretive coordination – both real and imagined – does not strengthen confidence in democracy.
WhatsApp groups can not only breed suspicion among the public, but also manufacture a mood of suspicion among their own participants. As also demonstrated by closed Facebook groups, discontents – not always well-founded – accumulate in private before boiling over in public. The capacity to circulate misinformation and allegations is becoming greater than the capacity to resolve them.
The political threat of WhatsApp is the flipside of its psychological appeal. Unlike so many other social media platforms, WhatsApp is built to secure privacy. On the plus side, this means intimacy with those we care about and an ability to speak freely; on the negative side, it injects an ethos of secrecy and suspicion into the public sphere. As Facebook, Twitter and Instagram become increasingly theatrical – every gesture geared to impress an audience or deflect criticism – WhatsApp has become a sanctuary from a confusing and untrustworthy world, where users can speak more frankly. As trust in groups grows, so it is withdrawn from public institutions and officials. A new common sense develops, founded on instinctive suspicion towards the world beyond the group.
The ongoing rise of WhatsApp, and its challenge to both legacy institutions and open social media, poses a profound political question: how do public institutions and discussions retain legitimacy and trust once people are organised into closed and invisible communities? The risk is that a vicious circle ensues, in which private groups circulate ever more information and disinformation to discredit public officials and public information, and our alienation from democracy escalates.
When WhatsApp was bought by Facebook in 2014 for $19bn, it was the most valuable tech acquisition in history. At the time, WhatsApp brought 450 million users with it. In February this year, it hit 2 billion users worldwide – and that is even before its lockdown surge – making it by far the most widely used messenger app, and the second most commonly used app after Facebook itself. In many countries, it is now the default means of digital communication and social coordination, especially among younger people.
The features that would later allow WhatsApp to become a conduit for conspiracy theory and political conflict were ones never integral to SMS, and have more in common with email: the creation of groups and the ability to forward messages. The ability to forward messages from one group to another – recently limited in response to Covid-19-related misinformation – makes for a potent informational weapon. Groups were initially limited in size to 100 people, but this was later increased to 256. That’s small enough to feel exclusive, but if 256 people forward a message on to another 256 people, 65,536 will have received it.
Groups originate for all sorts of purposes – a party, organising amateur sport, a shared interest – but then take on a life of their own. There can be an anarchic playfulness about this, as a group takes on its own set of in-jokes and traditions. In a New York Magazine piece last year, under the headline “Group chats are making the internet fun again”, the technology critic Max Read argued that groups have become “an outright replacement for the defining mode of social organization of the past decade: the platform-centric, feed-based social network.”
It’s understandable that in order to relax, users need to know they’re not being overheard – though there is a less playful side to this. If groups are perceived as a place to say what you really think, away from the constraints of public judgement or “political correctness”, then it follows that they are also where people turn to share prejudices or more hateful expressions, that are unacceptable (or even illegal) elsewhere. Santiago Abascal, the leader of the Spanish far-right party Vox, has defined his party as one willing to “defend what Spaniards say on WhatsApp”.
A different type of group emerges where its members are all users of the same service, such as a school, a housing block or a training programme. A potential problem here is one of negative solidarity, in which feelings of community are deepened by turning against the service in question. Groups of this sort typically start from a desire to pool information – students staying in touch about deadlines, say – but can swiftly become a means of discrediting the institution they cluster around. Initial murmurs of dissatisfaction can escalate rapidly, until the group has forged an identity around a spirit of resentment and alienation, which can then be impossible to dislodge with countervailing evidence.
Faced with the rise of new technologies, one option for formal organisations and associations is to follow people to their preferred platform. In March, the government introduced a WhatsApp-based information service about Covid-19, with an automated chatbot. But groups themselves can be an unreliable means of getting crucial information to people. Anecdotal evidence from local political organisers and trade union reps suggests that, despite the initial efficiency of WhatsApp groups, their workload often increases because of the escalating number of sub-communities, each of which needs to be contacted separately. Schools desperately seek to get information out to parents, only to discover that unless it appears in precisely the right WhatsApp group, it doesn’t register. The age of the message board, be it physical or digital, where information can be posted once for anyone who needs it, is over.
WhatsApp’s ‘broadcast list’ function, which allows messages to be sent to multiple recipients who are invisible to one another (like email’s ‘bcc’ line), alleviates some of the problems of groups taking on a life of their own. But even then, lists can only include people who are already mutual contacts of the list-owner. The problem, from the point of view of institutions, is that WhatsApp use seems fuelled by a preference for informal, private communication as such. University lecturers are frequently baffled by the discovery that many students and applicants don’t read email. If email is going into decline, WhatsApp does not seem to be a viable alternative when it comes to sharing verified information as widely and inclusively as possible.
Groups are great for brief bursts of humour or frustration, but, by their very nature, far less useful for supporting the circulation of public information. To understand why this is the case, we have to think about the way in which individuals can become swayed and influenced once they belong to a group.