Tactical Tech has done a study on how WhatsApp is a pioneer in political PR on a global scale. The research concluded that WhatsApp is functioning as the primary medium for political marketing in the Global South — countries in South Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Political parties are now having entire campaigns that are specifically designed for WhatsApp. The research says that the strong penetration of WhatsApp in rural communities where internet is only accessed through smartphones might be among the reasons behind this.

Primed for virality

WhatsApp allows creating groups of up to 256 people, which lets campaigners access a large number of people in one go. Even though the messages sent in groups are essentially broadcasted, they directly reach a user’s phone which makes it ‘personal’, Tactical Tech said — voters feel a ‘direct link’ with their politicians. The messages are encrypted and can easily become viral. Also, as the study points out, communication over WhatsApp is inexpensive.

“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 study pointed out.

How WhatsApp campaigning happens

“Databases are gathered by marketing experts and communication companies,” the study says, “who bring their own database of consumers (from other marketing projects, not necessarily related to politics) and expand them from there.” Some databases of contacts are also sold online. Some senders even use automated systems which can send 1000s of messages at once. There are even workarounds that let you make a group of more than 256 people.

Involvement of the Telcos

There is a lack of systems to check on net neutrality, which means telecom companies can block or slow down networks for certain sites or platforms according to their wishes, meaning that telecoms can block or slow down access to certain sites or platforms. The research says that zero rating, where some sites and services are free, is also a powerful instrument behind this flourishing WhatsApp marketing.

Zero rating has been banned in India since 2016.

The WhatsApp political marketing industry misuses a lot of personal information to make their campaigns successful. The recent incidents of mob lynchings gives a fair idea of how dangerous and influential WhatsApp rumours can be.

In a recent letter to Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY), WhatsApp said that it has been working to combat the fake news problem.