The past few years have seen WhatsApp become an increasingly powerful and influential tool for political campaigns in the Global South. For many people in the Global North, it may come as a surprise that participation in large WhatsApp groups constitutes the majority of online communication for many users in South America, Africa and Southeast Asia. While WhatsApp helps politicians reach voters and constituents in areas that don't otherwise have access to the internet, it also extends the reach and primacy of Facebook (who own the platform) in the democratic process in these countries. This article reveals some of the many ways WhatsApp is being deployed as a major part of the political process in countries including Brazil, Colombia, Kenya and Malaysia.
What is it?
The research conducted by Tactical Tech and our partners over the last 18 months has confirmed that WhatsApp is now a primary means of delivery for political messaging in many countries in the Global South, with particularly strong penetration in rural communities where internet is accessed mostly via smartphones1. Political campaigners disseminate photos, messages and calls to action via WhatsApp groups both large and small.
In the country reports by Tactical Tech's partners as part of our research on the global Influence Industry, it is clear that since 2015, WhatsApp is increasingly becoming the main tool for political campaigns in the Global South, and its influence is continuing to grow. According to Brendan Tobin, head of the political-campaign software company Ecanvasser, "...in South America and Central America [...] some campaigns just run on WhatsApp groups."
WhatsApp is a communication service launched in 2009 and acquired by Facebook in 2014, with an estimated 900 million users worldwide. The platform allows voice and video calls, video and voice messages, sharing of images, PDF documents and location2, all via one-to-one communication or in groups of up to 256 members.
In addition to using WhatsApp to send messages among family members or groups of friends, many in the Global South also use it to create and communicate with much larger social groups, organised around support of a particular football team, or fans of a certain band, as well as along political lines.
In 2016, WhatsApp introduced end-to-end encryption, meaning that users can communicate without their messages being readable or intercepted by others. However, metadata – such as who is sending messages to whom, when and from where – is still recorded and accessible to the platform and to Facebook3.
WhatsApp is a powerful tool for political campaigns due to several unique features of the platform, including:
it allows creation of groups of up to 256 people, generating large communities of close contacts
messages come directly to the user's phone, from known contacts, and therefore feel 'personal'
the immediacy of message delivery can create a feeling of urgency about particular topics
it can be used to penetrate rural communities that don't have access to other platforms
it can be used to target small groups with specific messages
messages are often not contextualised or verifiable via surrounding links or news stories
it can allow political groups to mobilise supporters
it can allow immediate and direct calls for action to spread virally4
it is cheap/free
communication is encrypted5
How is WhatsApp deployed by political campaigns?
Because WhatsApp has a strong penetration, particularly in the Global South, political campaigns utilise it in several ways:
to spread legitimate information about party activities and issues
to create a seemingly 'direct link' between politicians and voters
to shape political dialogues
to organise and mobilise people around a common issue
to spread misinformation or defamatory information
as a part of professional political marketing strategies
According to marketing experts interviewed in some of the country studies conducted by Tactical Tech's partners6, information delivered via WhatsApp has greater impact than other platforms because it has more penetration and appears to come from a reliable – or known – source. Unlike having 5,000 friends on Facebook, many of whom you don’t know in person, WhatsApp messages come as personal, individual messages from specific contacts.7
It is not uncommon to find online and offline courses on how to use WhatsApp in political campaigns (and marketing in general) targeted at users in countries such as Brazil. The political marketing strategists who make these courses point out that using WhatsApp for campaigning can have some drawbacks – namely, because of the "one-on-one" direct messaging that the network establishes, messages can feel invasive if the they are sent too frequently or if the recipient doesn't know the sender. For that reason, marketers recommend developing a detailed strategy of sending messages gradually and using supporters to create social leverage.
How is your personal data used in political campaigning via WhatsApp?
Because communication via WhatsApp relies on senders having access to recipients' phone numbers, databases of phone numbers are a crucial asset for campaigners8. Campaigners have found different strategies to get access to phone-number databases:
Databases are gathered by marketing experts and communication companies, who bring their own database of consumers (from other marketing projects, not necessarily related to politics) and expand them from there.
In addition to the data trade of personal databases by individuals and companies,9 there are many different solutions sold on the internet, providing “1000s of messages,” and “unlimited senders,” that can automatise the generation and management of WhatsApp groups and the sending of messages.10
Some services offer "tricks" by which senders can increase the number of WhatsApp group members from 256 to 10,000 or even more.
People offer their personal phone contacts – either for free or for a price – as products for political use:
In Colombia, for example, almost all the experts interviewed in our partner Karisma's research claimed to have some knowledge of how communication strategies work through WhatsApp:
It was interesting to note [that some of the political marketing strategies via WhatsApp] are also based on data collection and the misuse of personal data. When one of the interviewees commented on how these disinformation operations were planned through the social dark11, he described it in these terms:
"A guy arrives and says: 'Come, I have 1,000 phone numbers, and I can contact them via WhatsApp.' There are also people who are, let's say, 'influencers in WhatsApp.' A person who, suddenly has never been a politician, but has 1,500 stored numbers in his cell phone."
That testimony is only one of several that were obtained in the interviews, which describe a similar method: a person with many contacts on his mobile phone 'lends' them to a politician to spread a message (either as a volunteer or hired service).
Where is it being used?
WhatsApp dominates in the Global South in part due to the fact that many countries in the region have limited internet access. Several factors play a part in this: many countries, for instance, face a lack of net neutrality, meaning that telecoms can block or slow down access to certain sites or platforms. In addition, users may have to pay high costs to access the internet, and a critical lack of infrastructure may mean that internet access simply isn't available. All these factors make WhatsApp a particularly effective and powerful tool for access and communication within those populations.
In many of the countries which lack internet access, the practice of zero-rating has become a common way of certain platforms establishing a strong foothold. Zero-rating is a practice by which telecoms offer free data to mobile phone users if they exclusively use Facebook or WhatsApp. Recent research from Latin America showed that among 15 countries that offered some kind of zero-rated content, 14 offered free access to WhatsApp or Facebook. This is also true in many other countries in the Global South12. While zero-rating reduces the cost of accessing a service such as WhatsApp, it also discourages users from going on other platforms or accessing the web. As a result, it also limits their chances to fact-check information that comes from those platforms via other sources. For instance, if a political message comes to them through WhatsApp with a link to more information, they may not have access to the rest of the internet to verify the contents of the message13. Although India recently banned zero-rating, in South Africa, zero-rated WhatsApp plans are hugely popular. In Pakistan, Malaysia and Myanmar, it is also offered by the operators with the second- or third-highest market share, rather than the primary operator14.
Internet access in the Global South is achieved mainly through mobile phones (not only smartphones, but other mobile phones with internet access can use WhatsApp), limiting the number of apps users access. The Latin American ranking shows that internet access is limited to, respectively, WhatsApp, YouTube, Facebook, Google Maps and Facebook Messenger15.
According to local experts in India, WhatsApp has been more effective for political campaigning in rural areas than Facebook or Twitter, with the biggest parties developing strategies specifically for the tool:
“The WhatsApp campaigning has been a well-oiled machine. Taking their cue from the BJP’s WhatsApp campaign during the Uttar Pradesh election campaign, both parties have set committees to monitor the WhatsApp activities.”16 These monitoring groups work by checking the information that is sent in specific groups, “to avoid misinformation” and customize messages by region.17
In the country report Tactical Tech commissioned from our partner Su-Lyn Boo, her research shows that politicians in Malaysia are already using sophisticated digital communications strategies – including the use of WhatsApp – in their campaigns:
The leader of the Umno party said the party's respective branch leaders would have their own WhatsApp groups in their district polling station for “white” and “grey” voters, mainly to give information on current issues or to spread political messages. Umno has an information technology (IT) chief in each district polling station. If a district polling station has 1,000 voters, there will be five WhatsApp groups containing 200 voters each.
The creation of region-specific WhatsApp groups constitutes a form of micro-targeting:
In April 2017, Malay Mail Online18 reported that BN parties [the race-based coalition] primarily used WhatsApp and Facebook for political messaging in both rural and urban areas in the peninsula. This constitutes a more “targeted” form of political advertising, in that WhatsApp groups and Facebook pages or groups were created for various communities, including the local surau and parent-teacher associations, as well as other specific interest groups.
WhatsApp has been used to organise and exchange information as part of the incumbent political party’s program to oversee local community groups. Umno also has a “Jalinan Rakyat Plus” programme, by which certain Umno members track or “take care” of 30 voters each.
WhatsApp is used for both internal and external communication, and politicians can even use it as a direct channel to voters, some posting in WhatsApp groups up to 30 times per day, or participating in close to 1,000 groups at once. According to our partner's report:
In online campaigning, Ahmad Maslan from Umno, the biggest opposition party in the country, said he was currently in 991 WhatsApp groups, remarking that it was “probably the highest in the world.” These WhatsApp groups are mostly internal Umno groups comprising party members, but other Umno members have their own WhatsApp groups comprising non-party members too, such as people in their villages, party branch area, and school alumni, he said. “Most popular is Facebook and WhatsApp,” he said.
He added that he himself posted 30 political messages on social media per day – a mix of graphics (see above) and videos. Other messages about BN are also posted by groups such as Umno Youth, Wanita and Puteri. Ahmad’s Facebook page features plenty of wordy infographics with pro-BN messages and criticism of the Opposition.
WhatsApp is used by candidates and politicians for personal outreach and communication, including sending 'happy birthday' messages to voters:
WhatsApp is also used by Malaysian politicians to send personal birthday greetings to voters. Gerakan vice president Dominic Lau (see below), said his party could receive a list of 8,000 members in his constituency from the paramilitary civil volunteer corps, containing their names, IC numbers and phone numbers. Lau said for the past five years, he has been sending SMSs to these Batu voters to give birthday wishes or seasonal greetings during major festivities. “When I walk into the ‘pasar’ (market) in Batu, they will come to you and say ‘thank you for your birthday greeting’, so that means it’s effective. ‘Every year without fail, you send birthday wish’.”
According to the research on data and elections carried out by our partners Coding Rights for Tactical Tech, WhatsApp also plays a major role in Brazilian politics:
WhatsApp is one of the main sources of information in the country with around 120 million users. Among these users, (10% of total users of the app) 36% read and 21% spread information they get via WhatsApp,19 while 42% exchange messages with service providers, health care or bank managers, among others. Fifty-seven per cent said WhatsApp could be considered the safest medium for exchanging sensitive messages. The business version of the app was activated in the country in January 2018,20 enabling small and medium-sized businesses to collect statistics to assess whether corporate communication strategies are working on the platform.
Their research also revealed WhatsApp is bound to become more politically influential in future campaigns, according to the CEO of Cambridge Analytica's Brazilian partner company:
According to André Torreta [the CEO of Ponte Estratégia, the Brazilian partner of Cambridge Analytica]21 WhatsApp will be the most influential network in the upcoming elections in Brazil – unlike the United States, for example, where Facebook and Twitter dominate. "It's not every corner that has good internet speed or a good data plan," he explains.“Television continues to have greater weight because it is in most Brazilian households given that it can reach more people.”22 Torreta believes that state or federal deputies could be elected almost 100% via digital campaigns, using customised messages.
Campaigning on WhatsApp is one of the services offered to presidential candidates whose campaigns can start from 35 million Brazilian Reais. Ponte Estratégia mention they can send up to 10 messages a day via WhatsApp – first by conducting qualitative surveys to identify target audiences, and then by assembling a database of phone numbers to transmit messages.23
Obtaining lists of subscribers and databases of phone numbers has become a key tool:
Accessing voters' phone numbers and assembling the database takes the most time, according to Torreta, as the methods they use can range from organising campaign events where they request attendees'/supporters' phone numbers, to purchasing databases from companies such as [the data-broker] Serasa / Experian and [the telecom company] Vivo.24
[The newspaper] Folha de São Paulo also flagged25 that the majority of presidential pre-candidates intend to use WhatsApp in their campaign efforts in the upcoming election. In some cases, the political parties or the candidates assemble open transmission lists to communicate with voters or mobilisation groups. Such lists can comprise up to 20,000 subscribers who will receive campaign-related media directly from the candidates or political parties.
On the other side of the spectrum, WhatsApp has also been influential in facilitating and mobilising political activity outside of the political parties' messaging:
In another recent example of WhatsApp's mobilisation power in Brazil, in May this year, the platform was used to spread information about a strike against the increase in fuel prices by the government. According to Folha de São Paulo,26 what started with a single message in a WhatsApp group of 60 truck drivers, stating that the country would come to a halt if the fuel prices kept on increasing, became a group of 290 truck drivers in a few days. Multiple WhatsApp groups were created throughout the country and the platform became the main means of communication for the strikers. The same group was used to inform the drivers that the strike would continue despite the government's announcement of an agreement. The drivers affirm that without WhatsApp, they would never have been able to reach such levels of mobilisation. The federal government itself created a WhatsApp channel to try to “help truckers that would like to stop the strike”.
Coding Rights' research also found that far-right politicians are making use of WhatsApp more effectively than other members of the political spectrum:
In Brazil, WhatsApp is used more often by far-right politicians than those from other parties, often to spread disinformation or misinformation or skew the issues being discussed. Jair Bolsonaro, a member of the Chamber of Deputies in Brazil and a presidential candidate from the extreme-right party, personally manages his WhatsApp account and prepares material for at least once-a-day interaction with his supporters. In turn, they share these messages via Whatsapp much more actively than other candidate’s supporters.27 Several marketing researchers point out that, with more than 10 million followers, Bolsonaro has the most influence in social networks, not including WhatsApp (considering Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, taking into account both the number of followers and interactions).28 Without the aid of a marketing professional, he reportedly focuses his campaign on WhatsApp groups and webpages of extreme right-wing supporters in social networks.29
Brazilian politics and voters are particularly vulnerable to the spread of misinformation and disinformation via WhatsApp:
Claire Wardle, who works with First Draft, [a project studying misinformation and disinformation], says that Brazil is especially vulnerable to the spread of misinformation due to the extreme polarization of political views visible on social media. WhatsApp is relevant in this context,30 in that many examples of fake news that went viral in the country started in WhatsApp groups. According to research by the University of Sao Paulo, family groups are responsible for 51% of fake news that went viral on WhatsApp.31 According to Ciara Long,32 "substantial amounts of information are shared in group messages, with participants sharing in search of validation from their peers. They also provide the opportunity for anonymous sharing, meaning that possible backlash remains private rather than attracting the public shaming that appears on platforms like Facebook and Twitter." Researchers believe that the messaging platform will serve both for mobilisation and disruption: "the trend is for people to organize in WhatsApp groups around candidates and schedules, while people who want to destabilize each other's campaigns will also be operating in WhatsApp groups quite intensely," said Yasodara Córdova in an article from BBC Brazil.
Why should we care?
Phone-number databases and voter data that are used to spread WhatsApp campaign messages may be obtained illegally or without consent
According to our partner in Kenya, Grace Mtung'u, who carried out the country study for Tactical Tech, WhatsApp is often used to spread fake news or disinformation by young (usually) men, known as keyboard warriors, who are hired to send masses of messages:
Political parties hire so called “keyboard warriors,” media influencers that are hired to engage in messages that are less related to political campaigning per se, and more about the spread of negative messages about opponents or general fake news.34 Come April 2017, Kenyan voters particularly in urban areas received personalised text messages from political party aspirants seeking their votes. Aspirants organised their core supporters in WhatsApp groups and Telegram channels through which communication and logistics were coordinated. Such campaign messages were shared and discussed in private messaging app groups such as Telegram and WhatsApp.
Furthermore, the parties used the groups to carry out 'digital listening':
It was common for aspirants to collect phone numbers and voter details of groups of men, women and youth that they met in the course of campaigns. Their staff and supporters also joined many groups to gather political intelligence. In the process, phone numbers and other voter information was collected.
Some means of obtaining and using personal data in the context of WhatsApp can be considered in the limit of what is ethical or even legal:
In Kenya, aspirants, especially fresh ones, understand the value of phone data in reaching potential voters. There are various ways that such data can be obtained: it could be obtained unscrupulously from election databases; data for some constituencies could also be bought from downtown Nairobi from “traders”; one could purchase a bulk SMS package that came with data; for smaller scale seats such as MCA, one could also scrape their own data from large WhatsApp and Telegram groups.
And in Brazil, as our partners Coding Rights found in their research, phone-number databases are bought and sold via third parties or the political parties themselves, making it unclear whether the act is legal:
In Brazil the database is created with a combination of what is gathered via traditional means as political events with data being sold by Experian and Vivo (a Telecom company).35 The legality of these actions are still being discussed by lawyers in the country, but there is no final decision on it. Most experts say that if it is done before the actual campaign start (15th August) it should be considered as party database, therefore making it legal. It is important to mention that Brazil doesn’t have a general data protection law and the buying and selling of databases is done almost freely.
The use of WhatsApp has implications for safety, encryption and freedom of expression
Currently, there are several different bills and regulations being discussed around the world that try to limit or even forbid the use of encrypted or chat apps like WhatsApp, sometimes suspending the use of the app entirely, in many cases under the auspices of combating fake news. This directly impacts users' rights to privacy and assembly.
Another important element that will have an impact in the near future is the fact that the founders of WhatsApp left the company due to disagreements with Facebook on how to keep the tool private and ad-free. This indicates there may be a change in direction of how WhatsApp will be managed in the future.
WhatsApp has announced some features to “avoid fake news,” most likely to avoid being banned in different countries. It is important to see that the spread of fake news is not specific to encrypted apps like WhatsApp; other factors – like zero-rating and the lack of internet access outside the most popular apps – contribute to the “echo chambers” by which information is spread and consumed.
WhatsApp is currently a free service, although Facebook's impetus to make the service free to users should be taken with a grain of salt. When he acquired WhatsApp, Mark Zuckerberg explained that the acquisition may have been part of a larger plan to penetrate and dominate markets in developing countries: “Why were we excited to do this together? It was the Internet.org vision and how we can connect the world." The consequences of the deep infiltration of WhatsApp in the Global South only strengthens Facebook's hold, in that it also has access to WhatsApp users' metadata. This kind of monopolisation of messaging platforms could have major consequences for the democratic processes in these countries.