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By Bishop of Leeds
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WhatsApp Could Be The “Secret Battleground” In The Next General Election

Former immigration minister Robert Jenrick (Alamy)

5 min read

WhatsApp is set to play a major part in 2024’s UK general election, with political strategists and parties already preparing to use the ubiquitous messaging app to organise their supporters and target campaigning.

But unlike traditional social media such as Facebook and Twitter (now X) which have dominated other recent elections, the closed, encrypted platform could pose a unique problem for journalists and fact-checkers working to curb the spread of disinformation, or at the very least, monitor public responses to the campaign. 

Meta, which also owns Facebook, bought WhatsApp for an estimated $22billion in 2014 and it is the most-used messaging platform in the world with 700 million active monthly users. It is estimated that 30 million people in the UK use the app regularly, and unlike social media apps such as TikTok whose audience disproportionately skews young, WhatsApp’s user base cuts across generational lines. 

“It’s the main form of communication. In many instances, it's replaced email as a way of conversing,” Giles Kenningham, a former head of press at No.10, who now runs the public relations consultancy Trafalgar Strategy, told PoliticsHome. He predicted WhatsApp would be a “secret battleground” for parties in 2024.

“For political parties, there may well be fake news and falsehoods being peddled at breakneck speed because everything happens so quickly on there,” he said. 

“Politicians need to think about how they can use their powers to limit the way these platforms can be exploited or can cause potential harm.”

As well as allowing users to forward messages around their own chats, WhatsApp has recently launched “Channels”, on which individuals or organisations can broadcast messages to large audiences, a feature that major UK political parties have already begun to embrace. 

A Labour source told PoliticsHome that while they believed there was no “substitute to face to face conversations” when it comes to winning over voters, they will “of course use WhatsApp, along with various other social and communicative tools”.

Kate Dommett, a Professor in Digital Politics at the University of Sheffield observed that Labour appeared to be hiring "a lot of digital media content producers". According to The House magazine, this has so far included poaching staff from Google and the government. 

Dommett agreed that WhatsApp was likely to be a "really useful" digital campaigning resource across the political spectrum, where parties will be keen to disseminate content that is spread organically rather than by an algorithm – something WhatsApp is especially suited to.

"That kind of peer to peer, friend to friend contact is more persuasive in terms of having an influence on how people are thinking about voting," she explained. 

"I think it has real potential for a national campaign. Things can be forwarded [and] shared to communicate about policies [and] spread through the channel. And then that content can be forwarded on in other groups."

But peer to peer influence could be just as powerful for those seeding disinformation on WhatsApp, which could face less scrutiny in a closed chat group, where platform moderators are unable to penetrate. Even in X’s chaotic current iteration, community moderators are able to publicly flag and correct misleading claims using the added context feature. 

Labour MP Alex Davies-Jones, Shadow Minister for Tech, Gambling, and the Digital Economy told PoliticsHome that while she welcomed the benefits of WhatsApp as a campaigning tool, she worried the lack of accountability could prove dangerous, and difficult to control. 

“In terms of misinformation, we've seen what happens when certain messages get spread quickly,” she said. 

“With WhatsApp, you can't have the outside world coming in to challenge you on your opinions or on your ideas, which is what free speech is all about.

“If you are just relying on that to get out messaging, then of course it's going to be incredibly problematic.”

Meta has introduced some measures intended to prevent the spread of disinformation and misinformation on WhatsApp, including restricting the number of times an account can share content. The number of shared messages was reduced by 25 per cent as a result, according to data from WhatsApp. It also put “forwarded” and “forwarded many times” tags on messages in 2020 in order to differentiate original messages with widely shared content within chat channels with the aim of encouraging people to consider the source and authenticity of the information. But researchers at Loughborough university who examined users’ experience of the feature were sceptical that the measure was effective, concluding that users rarely "take the opportunity to think critically about whether a message might contain misinformation”.  

Outside of the UK, there have already been notable examples of the influence of political information on WhatsApp, for better and for worse. During the 2018 re-election campaign of the right-wing former president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, false rumours, doctored audio clips, photos and videos proliferated on the platform. Analysis of more than 12,000 messages by the Guardian concluded that the spread of fake news and disinformation over WhatsApp disproportionately benefited Bolsonaro over his opponents. 

Dr Martin Moore, Senior Lecturer in Political Communication at King’s College London explained that in India, where the platform is especially popular, strategists for Prime Minister Narendra Modi used it to organise “vast armies of supporters” on an exceptionally local scale by “populating WhatsApp groups”. But an investigation by Time Magazine found groups used by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which Modi leads, were stirring up religious hatred and false information. 

But Moore cautioned against comparisons of WhatsApp campaigning in the UK with countries where overall user habits may be different. 

“In Brazil and India, [WhatsApp] is a huge source of information and news, including political news, much more so than it has been at least to date in this country,” he said.

The next general election in the UK must be called before the end of 2024. Opinions vary on whether it will come in spring or autumn, but one thing already seems certain: it will be playing out on your phone. 

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