WhatsApp could become an incredibly disruptive force in politics because it is so cheap and readily accessible. The qualities that have made WhatsApp one of the world’s most successful messaging solutions and communications platforms also make it a potent political weapon.
Those that want to see how WhatsApp could affect the political process should take a look at the September general election in the Eastern African nation of Tanzania. During that contest, WhatsApp became the principal means of political communication because it is the most accessible social media in Tanzania, Quartz reported . Tanzanian politicians turned to WhatsApp there for the same reason American politicians go to county fairs and pancake breakfasts; it’s where the voters are.
“WhatsApp is a preferred tool of choice for propaganda, mudslinging, and negative messaging,” an unidentified digital media analyst in Tanzania told Quartz. The analyst described WhatsApp as a go-to communication platform for political messaging.
One reason why WhatsApp can reach so many people in Tanzania is that it is the cheapest and easiest means of reaching the Internet for many of that nation’s people. Smartphones sold in the country have the app preinstalled, and Tanzanians can purchase 60 megabytes of data for around $1, making it easy for even the poorest person to access it.
How WhatsApp Disrupts Politics
WhatsApp has disrupted politics in Tanzania by enabling average people to create networks of activists for or against a candidate. The networks often operate like the Political Action Committees, or PACs, that play such an important role in American politics.
Politicians love PACs because they can do things that a candidate on the stump cannot. For example, a PAC can call an opponent names or spread questionable rumors about that individual.
In Tanzania, surrogates or fronts for the candidates used WhatsApp for mudslinging. One popular tactic is to share pictures that show an opponent in an unflattering light. An even more disturbing tactic is to play to prejudices.
Opponents of presidential candidate Edward Lowassa obtained clip of him telling a group of Lutherans to pray for him to win because Tanzania needs a Lutheran president. The idea, of course, was to make Lowassa look prejudiced against people of other faiths.
That clip bounced around WhatsApp and eventually made it into the mainstream media. Apparently, the church a candidate attends is an important issue in Tanzanian politics.
One of the major hopes of political activists in Tanzania was to get a rumor or an image to go viral on WhatsApp in order to reach as many voters as possible. That tactic apparently worked with the Lowassa clip.
Dumbing Down Politics
A major danger with media like WhatsApp is that it can dumb down politics. People that dislike the simplicity and sheer stupidity of present-day politics will not like WhatsApp politics very much.
“This is a social media driven election, where people want easy to consume content that doesn’t make us think a lot,” the digital media strategist told Quartz. “It’s like Arsenal versus Chelsea rather than about issues.”
Arsenal and Chelsea are two famous soccer teams that play in the British Premier League. Not surprisingly, many Americans and others will wonder if WhatsApp will have a similar impact on politics elsewhere.
WhatsApp and the News
WhatsApp apparently played a role in the recent British general election. A number of major London newspapers, including The Telegraph and The Daily Mirror, created special feeds to spread political news via WhatsApp. Similar political newsfeeds on WhatsApp also exist in India.
The danger with such feeds is that they could be used to send out news that only comes from one party’s perspective. Only stories that show the party’s candidates in a positive light and its opponents in a negative manner would be sent out. Any information counter to the party line would be ignored.
WhatsApp in American Politics
Social media is having a major impact on American politics. One insurgent candidate, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), has managed to leverage social media to issue a credible challenge to frontrunner Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary.
One of Sanders’ biggest successes has been with fundraising over social media. During the Democratic debate on October 14, 2015, Sanders was able to raise $1.4 million, The Huffington Post reported . Most of the money came from small donors that sent increments of around $31.54 through social media.
Social media has helped Sanders, a socialist who has refused to take money from large donors and big corporations, bypass traditional fundraising and collect tens of millions of dollars. This has helped Sanders completely disrupt the campaign without using traditional methods such as television advertising.
Another way social media has helped Sanders is that many of his supporters sent clips of his debate performance to others that were not watching the debate. Sanders’ message got out even to large numbers of people that did not watch the debate and possibly reached people that normally do not pay attention to politics.
Some observers in the United States now think that social media could become the principal media that decides the U.S. election. A few have even compared it to the presidential election of 1960, the first American election in which television played a pivotal role. WhatsApp could play a role there because it is the cheapest and easiest way to access social media.
Favoring Alternative Candidates
If social media does become the primary means of political communication, that development will favor alternative candidates such as Sanders. One consequence of this will be that money will pay less of a role in elections because solutions like WhatsApp are so cheap.
Another is that the role of traditional media organizations such as television networks and newspapers could be greatly diminished because most voters will get their news directly from friends and family. Everybody will be his or her own editor and reporter, a situation that will dramatically change politics.
In the future, WhatsApp could become a major force in politics. It is only a matter of time before WhatsApp decides the outcome of an election somewhere.