Commercialisation of WhatsApp may come at a cost

Facebook-owned messaging service has been hit with crises of its own

Is WhatsApp for ‘real friends’? Photograph: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

Is WhatsApp for ‘real friends’? Photograph: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

 

How does WhatsApp make money? The answer, right now, is that it doesn’t. But Facebook, which has owned the messaging service since 2014, wants to change that by introducing fees for big corporate users.

Companies that want to provide “non-promotional” information like parcel tracking updates, event tickets and boarding passes through the encrypted platform will be charged a small per-message fee in exchange for confirmation that their message has been read.

So far, the function is only open to about 90 companies, including Uber and Booking. com, while another new feature, the ability of advertisers to include a “click to WhatsApp” button in their Facebook ads, isn’t yet available in Europe.

So the typical WhatsApp user in Ireland may be some way off seeing their group chats swamped by frustrating conversations with utility companies.

But by now, we’re used to the digital bait-and-switch. What starts out as a rush of fun with friends often winds up as another tedious home for corporate communications. No one should be surprised if this is also the future of WhatsApp – which dropped an unevenly applied subscription charge in 2016 – especially as Facebook has long flagged a move to monetise its $19 billion purchase.

WhatsApp in 2018 is already a much-changed entity. Around the world, use of the app to spread news, information and misinformation has surged, with results that could hardly be more serious.

Under the WhatsApp brand, it has taken out full-page newspaper ads, advising users not to believe everything that is forwarded to them

In India, where people forward more messages, photos and videos than in any other country, hoax messages about child kidnappings circulated via WhatsApp have triggered a series of mass lynchings in recent months and reportedly led to the deaths of two dozen people.

Facebook, accused by the Indian government of failing to curb the spread of false and incendiary information through WhatsApp, has said – reasonably – that it requires a partnership with the government and society to do so.

Newspaper ads

Under the WhatsApp brand, it has taken out full-page newspaper ads, advising users not to believe everything that is forwarded to them. It is also testing new lower limits to forwarding messages, across its platform, with stricter rules again in India, where it is also removing a “quick forward” feature that appears next to images, videos and links.

Make no mistake, this is a full-blown crisis for Facebook. It has only flown beneath the radar in this part of the world because western news values are western-facing, and because Facebook is already occupying so many headlines in relation to child abuse content, data breaches, its role in elections past and future, and its rollercoaster share price movements.

A successful monetisation of WhatsApp would certainly help Facebook at this scandal-ridden time.

Mob violence in India presents an extreme example of how a digital platform can be exploited by 'bad actors' with horrific efficiency

Though owned by Facebook, WhatsApp benefits from not being Facebook. For people reluctant to share and post information openly, often because it is unsafe to do so within authoritarian regimes, its encrypted nature means it is the app of choice.

A global study of digital media consumption by the University of Oxford-based Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has found that people are increasingly choosing these more private spaces to discuss what is going on around them, especially in places where concerns have been raised about freedom of expression.

Use of WhatsApp to access news (and fake news) has almost tripled since 2014, the report found, with the platform overtaking Twitter in importance in many countries and becoming a particularly popular “gateway” to news in Brazil, Malaysia and Turkey.

Transparency concerns

The use of WhatsApp for news consumption has also risen at a rapid pace in Ireland, according to the Irish section of the report by DCU’s Institute for Future Media and Journalism. More than half of respondents to an online survey said they now used the platform this way, up from about a quarter in 2015, and the report notes that the opaqueness of this may be “concerning for news producers, transparency campaigners and others”.

Mob violence in India presents an extreme example of how a digital platform can be exploited by “bad actors” with horrific efficiency.

For Facebook, the bigger risk to the reputation of WhatsApp may be any move to unwind its original 'respect' for privacy

At the same time, it is a normal and healthy principle for people to have access to private communication outlets without fear of interception. Neither Facebook/WhatsApp nor any third party know the content of messages sent on WhatsApp. That is the whole point of end-to-end encryption. Just as security services worldwide apparently do, every media company, researcher and marketer spoiled by the insights offered by public social forums may have to put up with not being able to track how information is consumed, interpreted and distributed via WhatsApp.

In focus groups conducted for the Reuters Institute, meanwhile, participants used words like “generic”, “creepy” and “ego-centric” to describe “uncool uncle” Facebook, while WhatsApp was hailed as “straightforward”, “honest” and “reliable”. WhatsApp was for “real friends” not Facebook friends.

For Facebook, the bigger risk to the reputation of WhatsApp may be any move to unwind its original “respect” for privacy, which co-founder Jan Koum once said was “coded into our DNA”. His departure from the company in April is regarded as an ominous sign on this score. When the ads start coming, WhatsApp could become yet another “uncool uncle” – one that makes money, but at a cost to its users.