This special issue, curated by Emma Baulch, Ariadna Matamoros-Fernández, and Amelia Johns, marks the end of the first decade of WhatsApp’s existence and offers a collection of essays on the importance of this technology in everyday life. Considering the rapid uptake and ubiquity of WhatsApp in places beyond the Anglophone world, including Brazil, Mexico, Malaysia, and Spain, the seven papers interrogate the opportunities and challenges that the app affords to activists and ordinary users through its main features: end-to-end encryption, groups, and the forward function.
The social implications of the turn to messaging apps
Emerging issues in WhatsApp research
In recent years WhatsApp has emerged as one of the world’s fastest growing platforms. Founded in 2009 by two Yahoo former employees, WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook in 2014, and is now the preferred app in more than 100 countries around the world (Sevitt, 2017). With particularly high penetration rates in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil, and South Africa, WhatsApp supports sending and receiving text, photo, video, and voice calls.
WhatsApp has spread globally across diverse markets with diverse histories of online engagement. Therefore, its appeal cannot be attributed to any one factor. The popularity of WhatsApp as a preferred social media platform in the so-called global South, and in rural areas, has often been related to economic constraints and poor broadband infrastructure which limit everyday online communication to the use of smartphones and messaging, with the additional factor that some mobile phone plans allow people to use these apps for free (Tapsell, 2018). Some have argued, WhatsApp proved attractive in these markets because it offered a cheap alternative to SMS and conventional voice calls (Pereira and Bojczuk, 2018). But WhatsApp has also been enthusiastically taken up by urban middle class individuals with disposable income and fast Internet connections, and with considerable experience of using mainstream social media platforms (such as Facebook, twitter and Instagram) to communicate. For these people, it is not cheap one-on-one messaging, but other functions of the app, such as the group messaging feature and encryption, that are likely to be enticing them to turn to WhatsApp for everyday online interactions.
WhatsApp groups allow personal connections and conversations to take place between groups of up to 256 users. They afford connectivity, facilitate the formation of collective identities, and give rise to networks of weak and strong ties. This feature makes the app more like a social network (e.g., similar to Facebook groups) rather than just a text messaging or voice call service. As people use it to communicate in and through groups, the app gives rise not only to new kinds of one-to-one talk, as well as corporate and public service messaging, but also to new kinds of collective life and sociability (Pereira and Bojzuk, 2018). Although the average WhatsApp group is fewer than 10 people (Lu, 2019), research suggests that in countries like Brazil and India these numbers are higher (Banaji, et al., 2019; Caetano, et al., 2018).
Broadcast lists is another popular WhatsApp feature, which allows users to send “broadcast messages” to a saved list of contacts at once without having to select them each time. Media outlets in Spain and Latin America have been using WhatsApp broadcast lists to share news to their audiences (Newman, et al., 2018), but the feature also affords the possibility to spread misinformation and spam (Sharma, 2018).
Communication on WhatsApp has been encrypted since 2016, which affords the app an aura of security and trust, and further distinguishes it from mainstream platforms that have been shown to compromise user privacy (Zanon, 2018). However these claims must be measured against countering arguments. Research has argued that WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption is performative rather than being a core value of the company (Santos and Faure, 2018) — plus encryption does not necessarily mean that Facebook is not in a position to collect WhatsApp data (see Zanon, 2018). Yet other scholars identify encrypted chat apps as a ‘safer’ space for activists and ordinary citizens to share information and engage in civic and political networking and action, particularly in contexts where legacy media and other social media are heavily censored and surveilled by the state (Khazraee and Losey, 2016; Dencik, et al., 2016; Hintz, et al., 2019).
Despite the perception that end-to-end encryption means that surveillance is limited on WhatsApp, it also means that content circulates in a manner largely unregulated and unmoderated by the platform. This can be problematic, because as WhatsApp becomes an increasingly important channel for the dissemination of news (Newman, et al., 2018) and meme culture (Ballesteros Doncel, 2016; Ncube, 2016; Al Zidjaly, 2017), so does it play an important role in facilitating “information disorder” — the spread of misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation in closed groups not subjected to any kind of platform moderation (Wardle and Derakshan, 2017).
In Brazil’s 2018 general election, for example, partisans of the far right-leaning Jair Bolsonaro weaponized the app to spread malinformation and manipulate voter sentiment in favour of the presidential candidate (Nemer, 2018). In countries like India and Mexico, WhatsApp has been linked to mob violence (Banaji, et al., 2019; Martinez, 2018), and similar fears arise in relation to how the app is providing a safe haven for terrorists (Arianti and Yasin, 2016) and pedophiles (Constine, 2018). Some countries invoke these malicious uses of WhatsApp and other encrypted apps as evidence of the need to pass controversial legislation giving states access to private conversations. In Australia, for example, a law was passed in 2018 that would compel Facebook and other telecommunication companies to provide federal police and intelligence agencies access to encrypted conversations (Whigham, 2018).
WhatsApp’s links to ‘information disorder’, mob violence, and terrorism have been in the spotlight, but the rapid uptake of the app bears other implications that are also important to consider. For example, as people move away from, or leapfrog, the collapsing contexts that have partly contributed to social media’s allure, and towards the forging of more personal, private networks, new kinds of civic alliances and discourses are emerging, and so too are new digital “grammars” and literacies of pro-democracy movements being reshaped . WhatsApp also plays an important role in enhancing solidarity and trust among communities (Baxter, 2018), mediating everyday life (Matassi, et al., 2019), as well as in the forging and maintenance of digital networks in contexts of poor tele-connectivity (Borkert, et al., 2018).
The rise of WhatsApp as an important tool for corporate communications and state communications is yet to be fully explored in the literature, but is an emerging issue for researchers of the app. In many important WhatsApp markets, and since the launch of the WhatsApp Business app, public space is littered with messages inviting users to use the app to communicate with corporations to access goods and services, prompting important questions about how the app may reshape commercial transactions by moving them more deeply into the private sphere. Similarly, states rely on WhatsApp to address the nation, as did the new Malaysian government when it used the app to release the government’s first budget (Soyacincau, 2018).
Exploration of WhatsApp as an instrumental tool for ordinary citizens, activists, government agencies, businesses, and “bad actors” meets with considerable methodological challenges too. Much current work on WhatsApp employs traditional social science methods to understand its use, for the app cannot be studied using digital methods relying on, for example, the extraction of large-scale data sets via accessing platforms application programming interfaces (APIs). Accordingly, we need to take account of how researchers are navigating the features and affordances of the app and creating new methods to know more about what kind of information circulates on the platform, who is responsible for mobilizing its spread, and content creation practices on WhatsApp.
The social implications of the turn to messaging apps
This collection marks the end of the first decade of WhatsApp’s existence, and uses the occasion to reflect on how the rise of the messaging app has changed the way people communicate, and its implications for the direction, objects, methods, and theories of digital humanities research. It includes seven articles by leading WhatsApp researchers. Given WhatsApp’s near universal appeal but for major Anglophone sites, the U.S., U.K., and Australia, the articles in this collection aptly introduce readers to uses of the platform in places beyond the Anglophone world, including Brazil, Mexico, Malaysia, and Spain.
There are three important questions raised by the rise of WhatsApp over the past decade, and they are addressed in various ways by the articles collected here. The first is: What are the social and political implications of the turn to messaging (or chat) for online communications? To pose this question is to position WhatsApp within an array of messaging or chat apps, including other encrypted apps (Telegram, Signal, Line) as well as non-encrypted services (Facebook and Instagram messenger, WeChat), and to consider how the increasing tendency to communicate in closed networks or groups is cause for reconceptualising how the public/private divide plays out online. Treré’s article refers to private messaging platforms (WhatsApp and Messenger) as backstages, a conceptualisation which draws attention to how WhatsApp is opening ‘safe’ spaces within broader media ecologies where visibility, searchability and traceability of data is leaving actors vulnerable to government and corporate surveillance and manipulation. Instead WhatsApp allows people to confer with trusted individuals away from frontstage public feeds such as on Instagram or Twitter. Treré argues that WhatsApp harbours the cooking up of cultural codes that come to infuse social movements and help them articulate themselves as culturally distinct. His conceptualisation suggests that messaging apps are playing important roles in conferring agency upon users in a context in which the private interests of tech companies pose undue influence in the organisation of public cultures across the globe.
Milan and Barbosa’s article similarly deals with the role WhatsApp plays in activists’ digital repertoires. Through a focus on the WhatsApp group Unidos Contra o Golpe (United Against the Coup, henceforth UCG), which mobilised against the impeachment of the then-President Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, they argue that WhatsApp is not just a space where emergent selves are worked out and experimented with, via exchanges between group members. It also serves as a launching pad for amplifying messages through members’ use of the forward function, which enables users to send messages to other groups and other platforms. Additionally, the UCG case shows how the app can serve as a vehicle for civic engagement via autonomous and collective action through the use of specific functions, such as the emoji deck. By simultaneously posting the vomit emoji, UCG members took advantage of this emoji’s broadly recognised meaning (as a register of disgust) to stage a civic action.
The second question the articles in this special issue address is the implications of the turn to encrypted messaging specifically. What are the opportunities and challenges of end-to-end encryption? Two of the articles included here attend to this question. The first carries on from discussion regarding the potential of the app in fostering critical publics and civic and political engagement. Johns’ article considers end-to-end encryption on WhatsApp as an affordance that fosters the safe formation of activist and political groups formed to exchange views, deliberate and organise civic and political actions, vital for the enactment of democracy. Johns compares WhatsApp groups in Malaysia to Warner’s (2002) counter-publics, replacing it with the concept of ‘crypto-publics’ to account for how encryption is fostering different types of resistance toward mainstream social media publics. She provides insight into the way Malaysian activists and ordinary citizens subjected to the Sedition Act use the encryption affordance on WhatsApp to create a safe space to communicate beyond the gaze of the state.
The second article considers the negative implications of WhatsApp’s encryption affordance and its design and governance features which make the app a popular conduit for vernacular cultures of racist meme appropriation and sharing. Such vernaculars not only normalise racism within private, trusted networks, but also allow for its amplification and mainstream media uptake through the WhatsApps forward function. Matamoros-Fernández’ article studies the racist meme El Negro de WhatsApp, highlighting its platform specificity, with the racist meme being hidden within media content that, in preview, looks legitimate, but when clicked on reveals racist imagery. This is further aided by meme generator platforms and apps that offer El Negro de WhatsApp template designs, further assisting users to unreflexively remix and share the meme without considering the harm of the racist content. Matamoros-Fernández concludes that the social life the meme enjoys on the app alerts us to the worrying implications of the absence of platform moderation on the platform, contributing to the author’s understanding that design and governance features articulate a new kind of “platformed racism” whereby vernacular cultures of the Internet contribute to unreflexive sharing practices which lack of moderation exacerbates.
Questions around misuse of the platform, governance, and bottom-up digital literacy and citizenship also come into play in Santos, Saldaña, and Rosenberg’s article, examining differing levels of digital literacy within user responses to a legally enforced 12-hour deprivation of access to WhatsApp that occurred in Brazil on 18 December 2015. Given the popularity of the app as a place for the circulation of news and the fostering of political campaigns by activists and partisan actors, the authors examine how blockages of the app are navigated by everyday users. The blockage in question was ordered by a judge in 2015 owing to a breakdown in conversations with WhatsApp’s parent company, Facebook, after the judge requested that Facebook hand over data relevant to a drug case. The authors use the case as an opportunity to examine the acquisition of digital literacy skills (specifically the installation of a VPN) to circumvent technology disruptions and censorship, which has relevance for questions raised in this issue regarding Whatsapp as a platform for civic and political participation. Based on survey results, the authors identify four groups that summarize the reaction patterns in face of the blockage: the deprived, the challengers, the addicted, and the elite, with each of these groups demonstrating varying capacities to restore access to Whatsapp, but also different emotions and motivations for doing so. In particular the findings highlight a continuing digital divide in terms of access to skills necessary to overcome digital shortages, but the scholars also indicate a move beyond ‘skills’ as a litmus test, to argue that digital literacies involve skill acquisition but also deeper understandings of the emotions and needs of users.
Emerging issues in WhatsApp research
The third question the articles here address is: What does the rise of WhatsApp mean for digital humanities research — its methods, theoretical paradigms and objects of study? This section of the issue begins with Pang and Woo, who engage in a systematic review of literature spanning 10 years of WhatsApp research. Specifically, they bring attention to a tension in the literature that pivots around some of the unique features and privacy enhancing affordances of the platform, and their influence on political and civic engagement. Although this is a key focus, the authors first order the articles into everyday uses and motivations of use. These are identified as: 1) news gathering and sharing for reciprocity; 2) connecting for solidarity and building collective identity; 3) coordinating actions; and, 4) state surveillance and evasion. In particular, the authors find in the literature that some of these motivations and uses are related to specific features and affordances of the app and their potential for mobilising or closing down civic and political engagement. For example, as other authors in this special issue explain, Pang and Woo identify end-to-end encryption as a key affordance for activists to evade state surveillance. In terms of methods, the authors note that most of the studies on WhatsApp have relied on ethnographic and case study approaches. They stress, though, that there is little reflection on ethical issues of researching this app, such as how informed consent is acquired when doing participant observation on WhatsApp groups. The authors conclude, based on their review of the literature, that three styles of engagement emerge from WhatsApp use: frontline engagement, passive facilitation, and relational engagement. They also highlight that more research needs to be done regarding how WhatsApp groups are created and moderated, as well as how authorities respond to how people use WhatsApp in different geographical contexts.
The last article in this special issue positions WhatsApp as a technology of life, which mediates almost all aspects of everyday life in different regions of the world, predominantly in the Global South. Gómez Cruz and Harindranath highlight the limitations of data-centric approaches in digital media research to fully grasp the impact of encrypted messaging apps in everyday life. Though big data approaches have been used in studies on WhatsApp, especially in research coming from Brazil, Gómez Cruz and Harindranath call for the need to return to ethnographic methods to understand how specific cultural contexts outside the Anglosphere shape how these technologies are negotiated, used, and transformed. The authors use interviews with people in Mexico City to show how WhatsApp has given rise to a new set of quotidian activities that are integrated in everyday life: from peer geochecking while commuting in Mexico City to the maintenance of kin relations through WhatsApp groups. This echoes the call of Treré, earlier in the collection, who in response to the computational turn in Internet research and digital media studies, asks where is the research dealing with the ‘backstage’ channels of digital protest and social movements, as evidenced by the use of WhatsApp by activists across the globe? This gap in the literature provides a powerful rationale for the current collection.
Overall, we aim for this special issue to be the first comprehensive account of the emerging issues and future directions of WhatsApp research. WhatsApp as a technology and as a site of social practice requires further scholarly attention, and we hope to see more research on the platform in the years to come.
About the authors
Emma Baulch is Associate Professor of Media and Communication at Monash Malaysia.
E-mail: emma [dot] baulch [at] monash [dot] edu
Ariadna Matamoros-Fernández is Lecturer in Digital Media at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT).
E-mail: ariadna [dot] matamorosfernandez [at] qut [dot] edu [dot] au
Amelia Johns is Senior Lecturer in Digital Media at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS).
E-mail: amelia [dot] johns [at] uts [dot] edu [dot] au
The authors would like to acknowledge and thank the scholars that reviewed the papers of this special issue for their rigorous and constructive comments and for contributing in making this special issue a reality.
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Received 17 December 2019; accepted 18 December 2019.
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Introduction: Ten years of WhatsApp: The role of chat apps in the formation and mobilization of online publics
by Emma Baulch, Ariadna Matamoros-Fernández, and Amelia Johns.
First Monday, Volume 25, Number 1 - 6 January 2020