Sérgio Barbosa: The Rise of WhatsAppers From the Global South

, 10.08.2023

Chat apps seemingly oscillate between two poles. On the one hand, they serve to quickly send videos of clumsy animals to relatives and friends. On a societal level, many messenger apps have gained a questionable reputation as flywheels of misinformation and conspiracy theories, especially in recent years. However, a look beyond the Global North illuminates their significance as sites for the development of collective identity. Sérgio Barbosa is a sociologist and PhD candidate at the Centre for Social Studies (CES) of the University of Coimbra studying emerging forms of political participation via messaging apps. Between April and June 2023, he was a Junior Visiting Fellow within the Digital Humanism Program. In this interview with Jakob Angeli, the IWM's Content & PR Manager, he talks about everyday digital activism in Brazil, the potential of WhatsAppers to foster social change at the local level, and approaches to digital literacy from the Global South.

Jakob Angeli: In your research, you focus on digital sociology, messenger apps, and networked activism, which you study mostly through ethnographic methods. What sparked your interest in these topics?

Sérgio Barbosa: During my bachelor’s degree in Sociology, I was part of a research project investigating the political participation of undergraduate students at the University of Brasilia. We noticed a gap between what the literature said about traditional forms of political participation via-a-vis what young people were doing to participate in political life. They were mainly active on social media platforms, for example, sharing info, collecting votes, and gathering signatures for petitions, but also taking to the streets. It was also the time of the so-called "June Journeys" in 2013 when massive public protests occurred all over Brazil. During my master’s degree in political sociology at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, I started being a member of political WhatsApp groups. As a sociologist by formation, I was intrigued by the intimate nature of this backstage activism on chat apps, and how action repertoires differed from the algorithmically curated feeds on Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube, which most of the researchers were publishing about at that time. Embarking on my PhD in Portugal allowed me to further develop this line of work. I broke with the dominant Anglo-Saxon framework mainly examining large-scale formal mobilizations to investigate everyday activism in the Global South, taking Brazil as an empirical case study.

Angeli: Your latest project relates to the Campeche and South of the Island Popular Struggle Committee, a local resistance group based in the Brazilian city of Florianopolis, which self-organized over WhatsApp to collect votes during the 2022 presidential elections. Previous research of yours centered on United Against the Coup (#UnidosContraOGolpe, UCG), a chat group emerging in response to the ousting of President Dilma Rousseff from office in 2016. You posit the emergence of a new political subject specific to the Global South, in particular Latin America, called the WhatsApper. How can we characterize this type of subject?

Barbosa: The notion of WhatsApper designates a particular way to participate in political life by appropriating WhatsApp affordances for activist goals. Instead of being present on social media platforms run by algorithms, the so-called WhatsAppers very much prefer closed environments. Through the app, these everyday activists are able to accrue personal, family, professional, and political functions in one single platform: most of my interviewees say they are simultaneously dealing with family affairs in the family group, managing professional trouble in the work group, and participating in informal deliberation processes in their activist groups. The app thus becomes a generator of political identity. Fellow activists engage in dialogue through private chat rooms, making their engagement with political activism an intimate affair that is simultaneously mediated by WhatsApp and its affordances.

Being a privileged researcher doing digital ethnography in these two pro-democracy groups, I also see the importance of looking at turbulent Brazilian politics over all these years from a macro-level perspective. In 2016, there was the Coup d'État against President Dilma Rousseff, which in some ways served as a springboard for the election of Jair Bolsonaro [2018] and the rise of Bolsonarismo. Now Lula [da Silva] is back for his third mandate. Brazilian WhatsAppers maintained their resilient agenda throughout the years, contributing to the continued existence of these so-called long-lived progressive groups.

Angeli: A frequent allegation when it comes to various forms of digital activism, as opposed to more traditional forms of political participation, is that it gives rise to clicktivism – you subscribe to a petition or air your grievances on social media, but your actions do not necessarily translate into concrete action outside the digital sphere. How does the nexus between the digital and the analog realm – if it makes sense to distinguish these at all – function in the case of the groups you study?

Barbosa: Online and offline action repertoires are very blurred, as my empirical data shows. Most of the time, chat app-based activism ends with offline activities such as protest mobilizations, small assemblies, rallies, group readings, door-to-door campaigns, and so on. Group members who are departing from their houses or jobs can also post about what the group should do at the end of the day via audio or written messages. For example, daily activities can be decided on a last-minute basis. During some protests on the ground, they agree to wear specific red t-shirts or clothing with the group’s logo to recognize each other. To be sure, WhatsApp use here goes beyond the idea of just hanging out with like-minded people. They are connecting to foster a progressive agenda, while also combining their activities with different networks they have access to through their phones. However, with at times over 1000 daily messages sent in the group, not everyone will interact with each other. Nonetheless, these progressives differ substantially from similar far-right groups. They don't have the same resources to dedicate to political activities; many of them have children and low-income salaries.

Sérgio Barbosa at the Academy of International Affairs NRW

Angeli: And those on the Right do not?

Barbosa: Research in Brazil has shown that far-right groups often act with the support of a “hate cabinet” behind them–a few members who are dedicating substantial time and financial resources to their cause; sometimes also sponsored by influential businessmen. In the case of the everyday activists I study, their motivation is mainly to foster social change at the local level. Not all of them are linked to political parties, but they have a common agenda of progressive values. The groups’ soft leaders frequently have a relatively good income; hence they can participate more and fully dedicate themselves to the group agenda. Others, however, don’t possess similar resources, and come from low-income classes yet want to be part of a common cause and participate whenever possible. Brazilian far-right groups, on the other hand, have a more structured background and additional financial support. If you look at the attackers of 8 January [2023, the attempted overthrow of elected president Lula da Silva], most were financed by Brazilian businessmen with ties to the market and industry.

Angeli: So they have a more vertical structure as opposed to groups like UCG, which operates horizontally?

Barbosa: Precisely. Chantal Mouffe defines antagonism as the relationship of we/them, in which the two parties are seen as friends/enemies. To most of the far-right groups active on WhatsApp, their enemy is very clear in their chat conversations. On the other hand, in the case of the groups I study, there is no logic of enemies playing out in backstage discussions. Even if they were struggling against the Coup d'État that removed Dilma Rousseff, like in the case of UCG, or trying to collect votes for Lula, like the Committee Campeche, everyday activism assumes multiple meanings through creative forms of organizing and participation, composed of heated debates and operating horizontally. Some group members are more connected to the neighborhood, some to local associations, some affiliated with the Workers’ Party (PT), and some with popular and grassroots movements.

Angeli: In many West European countries, most notably Austria and Germany, digital chat apps have more recently become associated with conspirationalists, anti-vaxxers, and grassroots movements organizing against state-sponsored health policies, especially throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Much of the information flows on apps like Telegram were and still are riddled with mis- and disinformation. How can we account for these differences?

Barbosa: Even though I developed a progressive definition of WhatsAppers, it's obvious that conservative groups also understood the political power of chat apps, maybe much earlier. In 2016, I started to investigate UCG; two years later, Jair Bolsonaro was elected after a very successful disinformation campaign, weaponizing WhatsApp groups all over Brazil. Conservative forces massively used the platform to spread hate speech, conspiracy theories, and fake news. This misuse of chat apps as a political weapon reveals what I call the dark side of WhatsAppers.

However, it is very important to bear in mind that many countries of the Global South, including Brazil, are heavily dependent on WhatsApp zero-rating fees offered by telecom companies. If people exceed their mobile data limit, they can still use WhatsApp for free, not least owing to the influence of lobbyists working for Meta at the institutional level, mainly in the parliaments. It’s crucial to change this paradigm and diversify the options available to everyday users. In many European countries, activism is already structured through Signal networks. While activists in the Global North have the privilege to be active in comparatively safe chat app ecosystems such as Signal, most Brazilians don't even know Signal. It’s easy to advocate for a WhatsApp exodus when you have fewer problems with Internet access, predatory zero-rating fees, as well as low levels of digital literacy. If you look at the U.S. Capitol riots in January 2021, the rioters were also shifting to Signal to guarantee safer closed conversations. In sum, from the 2010s, we are seeing a new kind of digital mobilization where communication repertoires are moving from social media platforms run by algorithms, such as Facebook and Twitter, to encrypted communication on Signal, Telegram, and WhatsApp. And this will likely increase in the next years.

Angeli: Secrecy is an aspect many in the Global North overlook. People here mostly need not worry about a repressive state apparatus surveilling their communication or neighbors finding out about their political activities.

Barbosa: Exactly. In Iran, similar research shows that activists are producing networks of solidarity mostly on Telegram channels because that is the primary way to bypass government surveillance, many risks and troubles notwithstanding. The risks are enormous when activists’ metadata can be traced, which we have already witnessed in countries using surveillance technology such as Pegasus, the infamous spyware created by the Israeli company NSO group.

Angeli: Part of your research also centers on fostering digital media literacy. Many scholars argue that education measures only go so far in mitigating the effects of the current information malaise unless we take into view the proprietary logic of the platform economy. What do you make of these claims?

Barbosa: We need both. I am currently testing an education project in Portugal. High schools and broader educational contexts should consider young people’s interaction practices within platforms. Through so-called Digital Literacy Pedagogical Sessions, I and a group of engaged Global South scholars developed a pedagogical toolkit to foster youth digital literacy at early educational levels. Teachers of geography, physics, chemistry, or history may follow our outreach project as a creative way to stimulate their students to be more critical (digital) citizens through a transdisciplinary approach. We maintain that teaching mandatory digital literacy at an earlier stage can safeguard democracies in the future by creating awareness of how platforms might, for example, influence elections and other contexts vital for the functioning of democracy. This also contributes to critical interventions of younger generations to challenge the geopolitical dominance of the so-called GAMAM – Google, Amazon, Meta, Apple, and Microsoft. Secondly, these pedagogical sessions are an effective strategy to promote better practices online, also regarding information misuse on chat apps. Looking at the Portuguese context, most young people are not aware of the availability of various fact-checking platforms. Thirdly, pedagogical digital literacy sessions serve as passports to the future, guaranteeing that younger generations act as agents of a fair digital society. It’s not about me saying “Listen, switch to Signal and you’ll be safer”, but about enabling them to think about alternative online ecosystems themselves and helping them make sense of their daily digital reality.

Of course, we do need to regulate platforms, but it's not enough. My colleagues from the Global North often strike a tough note when it comes to regulating big tech, which is undoubtedly necessary. However, this still means adopting a top-down approach, with parliaments and academic experts dominating the debate, and digital human rights activists and NGOs playing a big role. But measures also need to target the bottom part of society. If you go to rural areas in Portugal or Global South countries like Brazil and talk to people about privacy, this doesn’t work. Their way of engaging with these platforms is completely different. If you tell a local small-scale business owner to leave WhatsApp for reasons of meta-data safety, he’ll laugh at you. This process should be inclusive and leave no one behind.

Angeli: How do you personally navigate the line between researcher and activist?

Barbosa: I reflected on this in one of my papers. Firstly, we need to invest in research strategies that do no harm to the research subjects and enable engaging in constant dialogue with them. My academic outputs are intimately linked to the lives and everyday activities of WhatsAppers. They nominated me as a little voice in academia, and this is my work task as a group participant. In the past years, group members approached me saying “You publish in English, and we don’t understand what you say. But we want to know what you tell people overseas about our activities.” So when a Swedish institute invited me to publish a policy brief, I wrote a trilingual version in Spanish, Portuguese, and English that was priorly negotiated with the activists. This way, we found a mutual agreement, and some group members were happy to know what I published about the group for an audience beyond the Anglo-Saxon world. They also gave me useful feedback during the process.

Secondly, chat app researchers should favor a recursive and dialogic approach while conducting digital ethnography in closed environments such as WhatsApp. Messaging apps are fluid environments, meaning I cannot collect physical consent from everyone in the group, which I do with my interviewees. Thirdly, I am transparent regarding my research agenda and methodology, and I avoid dishonest deviations. And lastly, of course, I consistently apply full anonymization in all my publications, which was especially important during the darkest Bolsonaro years. This is how I try to navigate the boundary; by being a research activist, as well as an activist researcher. I learned by doing how to transition between these two sometimes blurred worlds.

Photo: Sérgio Barbosa at the Academy of International Affairs NRW