For me, WhatsApp group chats are associated with my mother having learned how to use emojis and to share YouTube videos of whichever health and wellbeing influencer she’s recently subscribed to. Or of my friends discussing dinner parties, bad dates and how rich Jeff Bezos is. Never had it occurred to me that this platform will be turned into one of the most powerful mediums for political PR.
The platform’s use for political marketing is a relatively new direction, which is reportedly taking grounds in the global south and particularly in rural communities where internet is only accessed through smartphones. A study by the non-profit organisation Technical Technology, which studies “the political and social role of technology in our lives”, showed that WhatsApp is now the primary medium for political marketing in countries in South Asia, Africa, and Latin America, with a stronghold in India and more recently, in Brazil.
Each WhatsApp group can be made up of a maximum of 256 individuals, allowing campaigners to freely and directly speak to a large group of people completely unregulated. No fact checking and no Facebook ‘trustworthy’ evaluation. Inside a WhatsApp group chat, campaigners and politicians can talk about whatever they wish and spur discussion on ideas, policies and promises that, inside this space, can take the form of uncensored hate speech. But more importantly, the immediacy of message delivery can create a feeling of urgency towards particular topics and a false sensation of community or even solidarity.
When I think about it it makes complete sense. Political PR is all about emotion; feeling like my views are shared with others and my ideology asserted. That same feeling of excitement when my friends are invited into a brand new WhatsApp group, sending each other messages, memes and voice recordings all at once and the urge to keep up with the conversation has been channeled into an extremely powerful political tool. If knocking on people’s doors is how signatures used to be collected in political campaigning then compiling lists of hundreds of personal phone numbers and targeting potential voters via text is the new medium for political persuasion.
The thing with using WhatsApp as a PR tool is that it is cheap. According to the study, “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.” There are of course workarounds the 256 people limits with automated systems used so that 1,000s of messages can be sent at once.
While social media platforms desperately (and somewhat unsuccessfully) trying to combat the spread of fake news and the use of the medium to generate misleading political engagement, campaigners and politicians operating in this arena have already moved far ahead with more direct, more powerful and more personal ways to directly communicate with potential voters. Considering the recent traumatic outcomes of social media tycoons (WhatsApp is owned by Facebook) claiming a role within the political arena, and considering the uncontrolled nature of these Whatsapp groups, it seems as though the phone-based method is set to bring a whole new dimension of propaganda to an already chaotic and over crammed political communication arena.