What goes on WhatsApp doesn’t always stay on WhatsApp

Chat carefully. A UK minister’s description of colleagues as ‘swivel-eyed’ has gone public

Following a controversy relating to Simon Harris, Fine Gael uses the messaging app Confide,  where it’s not possible to screenshot messages

Following a controversy relating to Simon Harris, Fine Gael uses the messaging app Confide, where it’s not possible to screenshot messages

 

When is was set up in 2009, the instant messaging mobile phone app WhatsApp had the aim of “providing a richness of experience and an intimacy of communication that email and phone calls simply can’t compare with”.

But it’s this very “intimacy of conversation” that is causing many of the app’s users to either discontinue using it or review what messages they send on it. The problem is not so much when using WhatsApp to message your friends, but when it used among work colleagues.

Easily downloaded to a smartphone, WhatsApp is free and easy to use. With more than one billion users worldwide, it is has become the preferred choice of communication for many.

A popular feature is the creation of private groups on the service. For example, most of the main Irish political parties have their own WhatsApp groups, in which messages and group chats can only be seen by those invited to join the group – typically party members and officials.

WhatsApp can be used for anything from agreeing policy to sharing lines to be used in response to breaking news.

Because they’re a less formal way of communicating than either a phone call or an email, WhatsApp messages tend to be more relaxed and chatty. Which is where the problem begins.

In the UK, the Conservative climate change minister, Claire Perry, is today having to explain comments she made in a private WhatsApp group of Conservative politicians after she described fellow party members who are committed to a hard Brexit as “mostly elderly retired men who do not have mortgages, school-aged children or caring responsibilities - they represent the swivel-eyed few not the many we represent”.

Perry’s WhatsApp message was leaked to the press – a danger with WhatsApp communications, whether made to an individual or to members of a private group.

Last year, Fine Gael TDs left the WhatsApp service after a message on their private group was leaked to the media. The message by Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan said Minister for Health Simon Harris had leadership ambitions in the the race to succeed Enda Kenny.

Someone in the group took a screenshot of the image and forwarded it to a newspaper.

As a result, Fine Gael now uses a different messaging app called “Confide” – a service where it’s simply not possible to take screenshots of messages; all messages on “Confide” also auto-delete as soon as they are read. The app notifies both sender and recipient that a screenshot was attempted.

Conservative MP Boris Johnson was accused by the media of leaking his own WhatsApp messages when screenshots of messages he wrote in a private Conservative party group expressing support for Theresa May after last year’s UK general election appeared in newspapers.

The leaking of private messages has always been a feature of political life, but the focus now on WhatsApp is how it is being used in the workplace.

There are formal work WhatsApp groups – where everyone who works in a company is a member. The idea here is to increase connectivity and keep communication lines open. But there are also informal WhatsApp work groups that take the place of the after-work drinks conservation – and here opinions can run a bit freer.

A recent survey of UK human resource managers into WhatsApp activity in the workplace found that while a small number of employees found that the service “enhanced the workplace by encouraging collaboration and providing an opportunity for mutual support”, most people found informal work WhatsApp messages were used for “bitching and bullying”.

One HR manager who contributed to the survey said WhatsApp “is primarily used for gossiping. I work in an office where the millennials sit there all day on WhatsApp, messaging each other and sniggering like school children”.

Another HR manager said that the service was used “to exclude people from after-work drinks”.

Whether it be a British MP or a group of Fine Gael TDs, there is a growing realisation that – while WhatsApp may be cheap, easy to use and fun – everything said on the service leaves a permanent record and can be used against you.

What goes on WhatsApp, doesn’t always stay on WhatsApp.

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