What about WhatsApp? A systematic review of WhatsApp and its role in civic and political engagement
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What about WhatsApp? A systematic review of WhatsApp and its role in civic and political engagement by Natalie Pang and Yue Ting Woo

The use of instant messaging platforms such as WhatsApp for civic and political purposes has been observed and reported to be growing faster than other social media platforms especially in recent years. Using empirical research on WhatsApp studies published from 2009 to 2019 as its corpus of data, this article systematically reviews them to provide more robust conclusions about WhatsApp and its relationship with political and/or civic engagement. This paper seeks to answer three central questions related to WhatsApp and engagement: 1) What are the motivations in using WhatsApp and how do they manifest in the use of WhatsApp as a communication tool? 2) What is the role of WhatsApp in civic and political engagement? 3) How do researchers study the use of WhatsApp in civic and political engagement? The review finds that across empirical studies, while WhatsApp is used by activists and organisational networks for mobilisation and coordinating actions, it is also used by users who draw on the affordances of the medium for informal and ‘de-politicised’ conversations. The findings contribute to the theorising of social media-mediated movements and activism and highlight methodological gaps of ongoing research on WhatsApp.


Research strategy
RQ1: Motivations, activities and groups
RQ2: Role of WhatsApp
RQ3: Methods




Having been introduced to the masses in 2009, WhatsApp is a relatively latecomer to social media. Yet, its growth since then has been rapid (Silver, et al., 2019). With regards to engagement, while there has been anecdotal evidence of WhatsApp playing a central role in civic as well as political engagement, negative effects of WhatsApp have also been recognised, such as the platform being weaponised (Aizenkot and Kashy-Rosenbaum, 2018) and exposure to falsehoods (Ahad and Lim, 2014).

With mixed conclusions on the effects of WhatsApp in political and civic engagement, it is timely to systematically review the empirical studies to discuss the use of WhatsApp. This paper is a systematic review of the current literature on WhatsApp. It will first describe WhatsApp as a platform, identifying its key features and affordances and how these are linked to the domain of political and civic engagement. This is important in the conceptualisation of WhatsApp as a sociotechnical unit of analysis. Next, key gaps will be highlighted to lay out the rationale for the research questions in this paper. This will be followed by the methods and findings.

WhatsApp has gone through a number of key changes with the potential to impact political and civic engagement since its founding in 2009. Two features, scalability and replicability [1], have made it relatively easy to disseminate content without links to its original context or sender. Because of this, there have been instances in which WhatsApp was linked to the spreading of hoax messages and rumours that seriously impacted rational deliberation and worsened social divide, to the extent of causing widespread panic and even mob killings (Goel, et al., 2018).

One particular feature, the end-to-end encryption of WhatsApp, has received much attention. Implemented in April 2016, this feature makes it impossible for anyone else other than the sender and receiver to read or access what is sent. As Santos and Faure (2018) point out, while such end-to-end encryption seems to address concerns about security and privacy, there are competing priorities and values in the context of “business and strategic decisions” [2]. Notwithstanding the contradictions, perceptions of WhatsApp being a more ‘secure’ and ‘safe’ space for engagement seem to have taken root in some groups, encouraging the use of WhatsApp for activism and mobilisation. For instance, Moura and Michelson (2017) found WhatsApp being used to increase voter turnout and political participation amongst youths in Brazil. Such findings are congruent with other studies that found individuals using WhatsApp to lower the costs of activism (Treré, 2015) and avoid state surveillance (Johns and Cheong, 2019).

Perceptions of WhatsApp as a ‘safe space’ may also have been driven by the issue of context collapse in more open and public social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter, where multiple ‘publics’ and networks are flattened into a single context (Brandtzaeg and Lüders, 2018). Because these platforms expose users to multiple audiences, users may find it difficult to engage with all of these different audiences at the same time. This limits users’ ability to have open and meaningful conversations on key issues, driving them to move these discussions to smaller group chats on messaging apps like WhatsApp instead.

It is still inconclusive what types of individuals and groups use WhatsApp, their motivations, activities and how the affordances of WhatsApp inform their use. Some studies have demonstrated how the sense of collective or social identity motivate the use of WhatsApp and other instant messaging platforms for activism (Treré, 2015). Johns and Cheong (2019) discussed the switch to WhatsApp and Telegram by digital citizens in Malaysia, in the attempt to evade state surveillence. Such findings are congruent with what Dencik, et al. (2016) argue to be part of the resistance against state surveillance. However, some questions remain. In the past decade of scholarly work conducted on WhatsApp as a platform in the context of contentious politics, activism and political or civic engagement, what are the key motivations and how do they translate into the ways WhatsApp is used? We formulate our first research question: RQ1: What are the motivations in using WhatsApp and how do they manifest in the use of WhatsApp as a communication tool?

While we expect to see evidence of activist groups and other organisers using WhatsApp for the purposes of mobilisation and coordination, it is unclear if there may be other forms of WhatsApp use, especially in instances where a WhatsApp group has not always been ‘political’, or have evolved from what Khazraee and Losey (2016) described as “digital repertoires” [3]. Hence we seek to address our second question: RQ2: What is the role of WhatsApp in civic and political engagement, nothwithstanding its relationships with other digital platforms?

Because of the relatively closed nature of WhatsApp groups, one challenge in terms of doing research on WhatsApp is methodological. This is largely due to a number of reasons. Unlike certain platforms such as Telegram where one can join public groups, groups on WhatsApp are only accessible by invitation and only from the administrator(s) of each group. It is therefore difficult for researchers to gain access unless they are already part of the groups of interest. By this reasoning it is no surprise that such technical features may evoke and inform the research design as well as particular types of methods. We hope to draw observations on the methodological aspects of studying WhatsApp from the empirical studies: RQ3: How do researchers study the use of WhatsApp in civic and political engagement?



Research strategy

Systematic reviews have become increasingly popular as a rigorous method of synthesising and analysing empirical literature. Unlike a literature review, systematic reviews begin with developing a corpus of data comprising empirical literature and are focused on answering specific questions through a systematic analysis of the corpus. The analysis is done with a set of clearly identified criteria for inclusion and exclusion. Some systematic reviews approach its corpus of literature by quantitatively synthesising and re-coding findings in order to make conclusions about effect sizes. This is usually described as a meta-analysis. Because research on WhatsApp is still emerging, we did not use the meta-analysis approach as this would exclude many worthy studies of WhatsApp utilising qualitative data and methods.

As WhatsApp comes with its own features and affordances which can be quite different from other instant messaging platforms such as Viber, Telegram, Line, KakaoTalk and WeChat, the primary platform of interest is WhatsApp. n other words, comparing WhatsApp with other platforms may not be very meaningful since they have some distinct features and can be used in rather different ways, although it must be acknowledged that digital platforms are not used in isolation with each other.

The search strategy was to look for papers based on published studies focusing on WhatsApp, in the period February 2009 (the founding of WhatsApp) to June 2019 (time when this research was conceived). he inclusion criteria were 1) papers based on empirical studies on WhatsApp (if the studies compared WhatsApp with other social media platforms they were also included); and 2) studies that are in the context of political or civic engagement. If studies did not begin with these contexts but still alluded to political or civic engagement in its findings they were also included; 3) papers that are peer reviewed. Conceptual, theoretical papers, newspaper articles, book reviews and dissertations were also excluded. The key term “whatsapp” was entered in a meta-search across 19 databases, generating 759 articles. The results were then filtered with all of the inclusion criteria in mind, resulting in 40 articles.

For each empirical study, we used a codebook to summarise its research question(s), site of the study, journal where the paper was published, study sample, method(s) used and key findings. The findings are then divided into the following broad categories: 1) motivations, activities and audiences, to address RQ1; 2) Role of WhatsApp, to address RQ2; 3) methods, to address RQ3. Subthemes within each category were also identified and expounded.

Corpus overview: Contexts and samples

Table 1 provides a breakdown of the countries that the studies were based on, organised by their geographical regions. As the figures show, most of the studies are based in more western contexts, such as Europe, the United States and United Kingdom. It is also notable that there is also a sizeable number of studies coming out of Africa and the Middle East. This provides evidence for Shirazi’s (2013) argument and the work of others (Mutanana, 2016) linking social media to the promotion of democratic discourse in the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries, where freedom of expression has been limited and the costs of activism are high.


Research sites of studies


The relationship between countries in the Middle East and WhatsApp has not always been smooth sailing. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Algeria have all blocked WhatsApp for various periods of time (Radcliffe, 2017), for licensing, security and protectionism reasons. A coup that failed in Turkey in 2016, for instance, was coordinated via a WhatsApp group chat titled “‘We are a country of peace’ (‘yurta suhl b iziz’)” (Gallagher, 2016) and because it was impossible for such exchanges to be monitored by governments, the approach has been to block the platform.

In East Asia, studies that are found came only from Hong Kong. This is most likely due to Hong Kong being one of the few countries in East Asia that uses WhatsApp. In Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, other instant messaging applications such as LINE, KaKaoTalk and Facebook Messenger are used. China on the other hand, has its own instant messaging platforms including WeChat, Mobile QQ, Momo, Wangxin and Youni. In Southeast Asia, WhatsApp is widely used in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Indonesia in particular, has recently restricted access to Facebook and WhatsApp after attributing both platforms as being responsible for falsehoods that triggered riots after the presidential election in May 2019. While both platforms are still available in the country, its use is limited to text and voice messages. Photos and videos sent through WhatsApp have been blocked (Barahamin and Chew, 2019).

Unlike much of Southeast Asia and East Asia where other instant messaging platforms are fiercely competing with WhatsApp, India stands out as a site where WhatsApp has become almost ubiquitous. The growing significance of WhatsApp in India can be observed, with the number of studies coming from India alone, and it is expected to grow. Still, given the widespread coverage of WhatsApp in Asia, Asia, and especially Southeast Asia, remains an underresearched context for WhatsApp studies.

Figure 1 shows the growth of WhatsApp-related studies over time. Peaks are observable only from 2017 onwards. While this may be understood as WhatsApp just taking its time to grow, two other developments may also explain this observation. Using longitudinal data across different national contexts, Dalton and Welzel (2014) chronicled a distinctive shift in civic culture, from allegiant to more assertive forms of citizenship. Underlying this shift is growing distrust of electoral politics and institutions, as well as greater participation and expressions which is supported by social media. At the same time, with the end-to-end encryption in WhatsApp being introduced only in 2016, it is likely that the use of WhatsApp as a ‘safe’ space for political and civic engagement only gained traction after 2016.


Number of WhatsApp studies




RQ1: Motivations, activities and groups

The concept of uses and gratifications was developed and used by scholars to explore and explain the use of new media from the perspective of the individual user, rather than a structural perspective of medium effects (Rubin, 2009). At the core of the theory is the element of motivation, as motivations inform the ways users participate as well as their expectations from the process of participation (Rubin, 2009).

The following key motivations for using WhatsApp were identified through the review: 1) news gathering and sharing for reciprocity; 2) connecting for solidarity and building collective identity; 3) coordinating actions; and 4) state surveillance and evasion. We will discuss each of these motivations with regards to the users and activities.

One of the top motivations for using WhatsApp is the gathering and sharing of news by different users. Most of them are individuals from the general population, but there are studies that identified journalists and activists as using WhatsApp for the primary purpose of news gathering and sharing. Sharing is associated with confidence in WhatsApp to ensure reciprocity, with a number of studies pointing to the exchange of news as a way to maintain relationships and social cohesion (Goh, et al., 2019; Swart, et al., 2019). Interactions in these groups evolve around news sharing, with participants engaged in discussions of issues and building a sense of cohesion within their groups.

For journalists, WhatsApp was used to either gather news from activists and people on the ground where key civic and political movements were happening (Belair-Gagnon, et al., 2017; Reich, 2018), or create news with their followers and networks (Kligler-Vilenchik, 2018; Agur, 2019). Amongst activists, the sharing and exchanging of news was done mostly for the purpose of advocacy and raising awareness especially during times when collective action is emerging or intended. One example is the work of Lee and Ting (2015) who showed that WhatsApp was used for disseminating information to the masses during the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, but before the movement, news shared were not always directly related to the issue, and were more casual.

The use of WhatsApp to build relationships and social cohesion was not limited to the activity of news sharing and gathering. Studies that intervewed activists point to the use of WhatsApp by this group to reinforce the sense of collective identity and solidarity within the group through other activities, alluding to Centola’s (2013) point that even in the current media environment where movements and engagement can emerge without participants ever meeting face-to-face, solidarity and homophily in networks are still essential in order for a critical mass to form for successful civic and political engagement. Other than exchanging and gathering news during critical times in each movement or civic engagement (e.g., during the Umbrella Movement), conversations that happen on an everyday basis also play an important role in fostering solidarity. Decribed as ‘casual’, these conversations have the effect of fostering intimacy within social networks (Schwarz, 2011), as well as a sense of togetherness (Swart, et al., 2019).

Such conversations, not limited to activists, use a variety of forms: satirical memes, photographs, emojis, sarcasm, humour and metaphors. n the study by Ncube (2014), Zimbabweans culturally appropriated soccer metaphors often circulated as jokes — to critique power structures and the Zimbabwean election. This alludes to what civic engagement can look like on WhatsApp. Built around reciprocal exchanges of news and close social networks, and characterised by casual conversations, the conversations appear ‘depoliticised’. There is however, not enough observations on whether or not such depoliticised conversations distract participants from the issues or pose negative impacts on engagement.

In some cases, conversations are much more political and serious. This can be seen in a number of studies where conversations are more focused on the issues affecting them without much evidence of other chatter; there is a direct and articulated intention for collective action. In Česnulytė’s (2017) study for instance, Kenyan sex workers are connected via a WhatsApp group which they use as a space to share the issues and problems they face.

The conversations are not casual or serious in a dichotomous way. Al Zidjaly’s (2017) study, based on political dissent by Omanis showed how memes began with being funny and playful towards more satirical ones calling for action. Such examples show how motivations in using WhatsApp were not always clearly political at first, but can evolve within each WhatsApp group. The third main motivation for using WhatsApp is the use of groups within the platform to coordinate actions. This motivation seems to be primarily associated with activists, who use the platform to publicise events and coordinate participation at these events. The finding is aligned with what other scholars have already observed, with online platforms such as WhatsApp functioning as a communication tool to achieve traditional goals of coordinating activities (Vegh, 2013).

The fourth theme that emerged is associated with the use of WhatsApp in relation to other digital platforms. Due to increased surveillance of the state on citizens’ online activities and data (Dencik, et al., 2016; Hintz, et al., 2017), studies have emerged documenting how users turn to WhatsApp to evade such surveillance as well as to ‘safely’ engage in activism, lowering the costs to themselves (Johns and Cheong, 2019; Treré, 2015). Such platform switches had been driven by socio-political factors and key events that shaped or triggered structural transformations (Sewell, 1996), a phenomenon described by Khazraee and Losey (2016) as digital repertoires.



RQ2: Role of WhatsApp

The most frequently cited use of WhatsApp is for the coordination of activities by activists. Activists involved in movements ranging from the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong (Lee and Ting, 2015) to the G1000 Firework Dialogue in the Netherlands (Eckardt and Benneworth, 2018) reported using WhatsApp as a means of communicating with one another. Such use is especially intense among those within the core group of the movement. Communication in such groups in WhatsApp are also more expressive and direct. In contrast, updates to those who were deemed to be less involved could be sent via platforms that are more adapted for “external communication” [4], such as Twitter and Facebook.

Use of WhatsApp for internal communication within the core group of activists is more significant in countries where there is high surveillance by the state and control over other avenues of personal communication. One such example is Iran, where the government has the means to filter through SMS messages and terminate SMS service in specific areas of the country. In such cases, the end-to-end encryption feature of WhatsApp, and the fact that it relies on Internet rather than phone service, give activists a certain level of safety from government interference (Khazraee and Losey, 2016).

WhatsApp may also be used for different forms of engagement depending on the type of social movement. Among movements that originate from an organizer rallying its supporters (i.e., collective action), we observed that WhatsApp is used mainly, though not exclusively, in more active and frontline types of engagement (e.g., mobilising and advocacy) as well as passive forms of engagement such as sharing content associated with the civic or political issues of interest. For instance, preceding the 2013 elections in Zimbabwe, the ruling nationalist party created imagery based in the sport of soccer to ridicule its opponents and legitimize its own power. Ordinary citizens picked up on these metaphors and made original content (such as jokes and memes) and shared them with others via WhatsApp (Ncube, 2014). In this case, WhatsApp became one of the main tools facilitating a recursive cycle between engagement that is more frontline and that which is passive. Another example of such engagement was discussed in Swart, et al. (2019) who found that in networks comprising weaker ties, WhatsApp was used more as a tool for news dissemination.

On the other hand, in movements where there is greater personalised communication observed, WhatsApp plays a role in facilitating relationships and interactions. Such engagement speaks to what Bennett and Segerberg (2012) described as one of the defining features of connective action: its dependence on ordinary citizens joining its cause because of what it means to them personally. To this end, WhatsApp can influence individuals’ identification with a movement by allowing them to receive input and feedback directly from close others in their network. One example of this would be in the #YoSoy132 movement in Mexico, where activists propagated messages via WhatsApp to the masses daily in order to strengthen public identification with their cause (Treré, 2015).

Together, the studies discussing the role of WhatsApp in civic and political engagement show that WhatsApp can be used in distinctly diverse ways depending on the type of social movement. Collective action activists may use WhatsApp largely for the purposes of local coordination and advocacy, whereas movements based in connective action use WhatsApp for the establishment and strengthening of solidarity amongst the masses (Treré, 2018).



RQ3: Methods

Most of the studies in our review adopts the case-based approach in terms of research design, which was expected especially since they are discussing particular instances and cases of civic and political movements. However, methods of data collection and analysis vary. Not all papers detailed or described their research design; but where such details were missing we recoded them in our coding sheet. Table 2 provides an overview.


Overview of methodological approaches


Most of the empirical studies in our review involve qualitative data and use either the ethnographic approach or case studies. Researchers who employed the ethnographic approach were either part of the groups or were close enough to research participants to gain permissions to join the group chats. If they were part of the groups before the research is conceived, it was not always clear at which point others in the groups were informed about the research, how data is being analysed and how informed consent was acquired. These are ethical dilemmas that face every researcher studying digital media and online communities, but are even more salient for WhatsApp research to consider given the sensitive nature of such groups on WhatsApp. A number of studies utilising quantitative data was also found in our review, with all of them using surveys as a method of data collection (although the mode of the survey vary from online to phone and face to face surveys).

The scrollback interview method may be more useful for WhatsApp studies, as it allows research participants to share how their use of digital media changed over time, and critical moments in their use (Robards and Lincoln, 2017). None of the studies in our corpus discussed ethical dilemmas or provide suggestions on how to deal with them. This is most likely because such a discussion would entail investigations on its own, beyond the scope of the original studies. This gap grows critically salient, however, especially as the number of scholarly studies on WhatsApp grows.

The diversity of methods demonstrated by this review also allude to the opportunities and challenges for WhatsApp to be studied in interdisciplinary ways. While more than half of the papers in the corpus are journals in communication and media studies (e.g., New Media & Society, SM+Society, Information, Communication & Society, Chinese Journal of Communication, Communication and the Public, etc.) the others come from a variety of disciplines including social sciences (e.g., Ethnography, Social Movement Studies), technology and information science (e.g., Online Information Review), area studies (e.g., Modern Asian Studies, Journal of Southern African Studies), political science (e.g., Politikon, Journal of Democracy) and psychology (e.g., Journal of Language and Social Psychology). While there are research questions that are asked distinctly within each discipline, there are many questions that are similar (e.g., how young people use WhatsApp to engage and interact with each other on social issues) but are studied and discussed differently due to disciplinary differences. Much can be said about the knowledge that can be gained through an interdisciplinary study of WhatsApp, but challenges of reaching common grounds in terms of theory and methods remain.




While the systematic review also made the observation that there are many types of activism documented in our corpus, the use of WhatsApp extends far beyond moments of protests and activism. Not all studies discuss the everyday, identity-building nature of WhatsApp beyond such moments, but those that do demonstrate how equally important such everyday conversations are in building a collective sense of identity, for solidarity, and norms of communication (Johns and Cheong, 2019; Treré, 2015; Swart, et al., 2019).

Critics like Morozov (2011) find mass participation facilitated by digital media troubling, as participants may not understand the issues fully, are motivated to participate for self-representation, undermine the democratic potential of the Internet and therefore, the issue(s) and cause(s) involved. Breindl (2010) acknowledged the potential of the Internet for civic engagement, though this often leads to states’ sanctions and surveillance. Indeed, there is evidence of increased surveillance, as documented by Dencik, et al. (2016), Hintz, et al. (2017) as well as Johns and Cheong (2019). As part of the resistance against — and evasion of — such surveillance, the review found that users of WhatsApp have been motivated to switch to the platform because of their need for ‘safe’ spaces where they can evade surveillance, deliberate or discuss issues freely, and lower the costs of activism for themselves. Such findings point to the importance of historical studies of digital repertoires, where WhatsApp (and other instant messaging platforms if WhatsApp is not available) is a part of the repertoires of platforms citizens have, and the sequences of events triggering them to switch between platforms.

What is otherwise private talk can easily become public (Bimber, et al., 2005), and potentially, public discourse and deliberation without requiring central coordination. Premised on similar principles, Bennett and Segerberg (2012) argued that social media platforms have contributed to increased self-representations and identity formation especially on social network sites. Collective action should be understood as a spectrum, with individuals making personal connections to a common cause driving collective action. This is similar to Bimber, et al.’s (2005) notion of private-public boundary crossing, but also surfaces the idea that certain types of collective action based on ‘personalized content sharing across media networks’ [5] have the potential of shaping the nature of activism and engagement — from collective to connective action, the latter involving acts of personal expressions, self-representations and sharing in the context of individualistic social networks. Bennett and Segerberg (2012) go further to present a typology of three types of collective and connective action, in which digital media have differing roles and effects (see Figure 2).


Elements of collective and connective action networks


Bennett and Segerberg’s (2012) typology would argue that WhatsApp has different roles in the three forms of collective and connective actions. In more traditional forms of collective action where there is central and strong organisational coordination, WhatsApp may play a more coordination role, mainly for the purposes of coordinating actions and mobilisation. Content in such cases is expected to be focused on collective action frames, discussing the problems, solutions, allocation of resources and roles for participants. This was true as revealed in our review, with WhatsApp being used by activists for coordination.

But what about more connective forms of actions where there is more personalised frames of expression and connection and deliberation may not always be focused on issues involved? Our examination of the corpus revealed that conversations in WhatsApp group chats are hardly dichotomous or singular. Even for movements that contain more personal action frames, conversations exchanged over WhatsApp have been linked to positive reinforcement of social identity, as well as the sense of solidarity over the causes surfaced. Many groups did not start out to be political — these are group chats with families, friends, schoolmates, everyday conversations are instrumental to contributing to pivotal moments of engagement for the group later.

From the above analysis we can identify three types of civic engagement. In frontline engagement, WhatsApp is associated with actions that directly contribute to the visibility of a movement. Examples include using WhatsApp to participate in collective action such as rallies, strikes and marches. Some of such frontline engagement involves creating online content for the cause or movement, as well as spreading and participating in reciprocal conversations that emerge from the content. The second type of engagement is what we term as passive facilitation, defined as actions that still support each movement, but are more indirect. This includes sharing and forwarding content created by others, similar to the concept of slacktivism (Morozov, 2011). One other form of engagement that emerged is more relational, as observed in studies that found WhatsApp used as a platform to foster a sense of collective identity, togetherness and eventually, shaping individual’s identification with the issue and movement.




The review contributes to ongoing research on WhatsApp in a number of ways. Linking users to their motivations, we found evidence of a variety of activities that take place via WhatsApp. While conversations in some groups are direct, serious and political, there are many examples of conversations in WhatsApp groups that are casual and depoliticised, made possible with emojis, satirical memes and multimedia content shared over WhatsApp. As our analysis shows, such conversations are not frivolous — they are purposeful in terms of building relationships, making everyday connections and contribute to political dissent and/or discourse.

Three styles of engagement also emerged: frontline engagement, passive facilitation and relational engagement. They resemble the three types of social media use that Skoric, et al.’s (2016) meta-analysis found, namely, expressive, informational and relational, though they are not exactly the same. While frontline engagement is quite similar to expressive use of social media, we found evidence of informational use across all three styles of engagement. For instance, in relational engagement, social interactions are built around the sharing of information such as news.

Most of the studies in our review are qualitative and commonly adopts the use of ethnographic and case study approaches in their research design. A challenge for future empirical studies of WhatsApp remains methodological, with ethical dilemmas and issues of access to consider. These challenges are especially salient for the context of civic and political engagement examined in this review. Ethical issues of researching WhatsApp have yet to be addressed in a substantial way.

There are some limitations associated with the corpus. Due to the focus on WhatsApp, studies that use ‘social media’ as the general unit of analysis were not included, even through their measures and findings may also be generalisable to WhatsApp. Studies that focused on ‘instant messaging platforms’ without specifics on WhatsApp were also not included, as the intention of this review was to examine WhatsApp. The review has been focused on WhatsApp only and generalisations of the findings to other instant messaging platforms are limited. This was intentional because, as discussed at the start of the paper, the affordances of WhatsApp are quite different from, say, Telegram or WeChat. The review was also limited to papers based on empirical studies published by June 2019; articles that focused on WhatsApp but did not include empirical data or were published after June 2019 were not included in the review.

Some questions are left unexplored, which are salient to the topic of civic and political engagement. How groups are formed on WhatsApp and how they are moderated or managed, as well as how authorities respond to their use in various civic and political contexts are important questions of both scholarly and practical significance. Future work should address these questions as well as broader questions of agency by different actors.

Future research should also consider systematic reviews of other instant messaging platforms, basing the analysis on the similarities and differences in the affordances, users and associated motivations in using these platforms compared to WhatsApp. More research should also be conducted and reported especially from underresearched sites in Asia. Historical accounts of digital repertoires, especially in the contexts of political and civic engagement, are especially important to deepen understandings on the phenomenon of platform switching to, and from, WhatsApp. They are also crucial to deepen knowledge on the topic of digital democracy and how democracies are shaped by pivotal moments of citizenry afforded by digital platforms such as WhatsApp and other instant messaging platforms. End of article


About the authors

Natalie Pang is Senior Lecturer in the Communications and New Media Department, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences as well as Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. Her research work focuses on digital civics, weaponisation of digital platforms, and mediated urban heritage. She practices mixed methods, including analytics of social media data in her research. She serves as editorial board member for Digital Impacts and the Journal of Sociotechnical Critique as well as the Australasian Journal of Information Systems.
E-mail: natalie [dot] pang [at] nus [dot] edu [dot] sg

Yue Ting Woo is a Research Analyst at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) at National University of Singapore. She received her B.A. (Hons) and M.A. in Psychology from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Yue Ting is broadly interested in how culture and society affect individuals’ tendencies towards conflict and cooperation. In this regard, she has worked on projects ranging across various topics from the effect of religion on prosocial behaviour, to how social media is used in facilitating social movements.
E-mail: yuetingwoo [dot] ips [at] outlook [dot] com



1. Pellegrino, 2018, p. 83.

2. Santos and Faure, 2018, p. 6.

3. Khazraee and Losey, 2016, p. 51.

4. Treré, 2018, p. 146.

5. Bennett and Segerberg, 2012, p. 739.


(papers in the corpus are marked by *)

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Andre Barahamin and Amy Chew, 2019. “Indonesia restricts access to Facebook and WhatsApp to stop the spread of fake news after riots erupted that killed 6 people and injured 200,” Business Insider (22 May), at https://www.businessinsider.com/facebook-whatsapp-restricted-in-indonesia-amid-deadly-protests-2019-5, accessed 12 May 2019.

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doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0957926518754414, accessed 22 December 2019.

*Valerie Belair-Gagnon, Colin Agur and Nicholas Frisch, 2017. “The changing physical and social environment of newsgathering: A case study of foreign correspondents using chat apps during unrest,” Social Media + Society (27 March).
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Editorial history

Received 17 December 2019; accepted 18 December 2019.

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What about WhatsApp? A systematic review of WhatsApp and its role in civic and political engagement
by Natalie Pang and Yue Ting Woo.
First Monday, Volume 25, Number 1 - 6 January 2020
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v25i1.10417

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