WhatsApp’s Decision Limiting the Spread of Viral Messages – What It Means for Democracy

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On Tuesday, April 7, WhatsApp announced it would place new limits on the forwarding of messages identified as “highly forwarded” i.e. sent by a chain of five or more people. These messages can now only be forwarded to a single person. In fact, on its own blog, WhatsApp argued that: “Last year we introduced users to the concept of messages that have been forwarded many times. These messages are labelled with double arrows to indicate they did not originate from a close contact. In effect, these messages are less personal compared to typical messages sent on WhatsApp. We are now introducing a limit so that these messages can only be forwarded to one chat at a time.”

Why this limitation? The explanation lies in the same post: “As a private messaging service, we’ve taken several steps over the years to help keep conversations intimate. For example, we previously set limits on forwarded messages to constrain virality. At the time, we saw a 25% decrease in total message forwards globally.”

This restriction could be justified, on one hand, as a measure to stem the spread of fake news during a global health emergency. On the other, it could be also viewed as yet another disfiguring transformation of the original practice of social media. One could object that WhatsApp is not an example of social media; however, as the Company itself underlines, its socio-public function is undeniable. In the recent weeks of pandemic, people have also used the messaging service to organize public moments of support to health care workers curing those infected by the COVID19 virus.

Long gone seem the times in which social media were touted for their capacity to support collective movements, as was the case during the events of the “Arab Spring” barely ten years ago. Yet, that same yearning, that same spark for widespread protests against any form of “power vacuum,” seems to have been sunk. Not made to vanish, but rather, pushed inward; its disruptive force has been regressively rendered introspective, transformed into a “digital nihilism” to use the words of Geert Lovink.

Social medias’ political force has become a window into mass psychology without the mass. Being online today, in fact, is the personal condition thanks to which we represent, in our minds, others and the world. Immanuel Kant, at the end of the 18th century, had theorised that time and space were the two a priori categories of “I Think”. Today we are that phenomenology. Being online is the new universal condition of being human, immersed mentally and emotionally in a hyper-connected reality where time stops being linear, spatial distances are annihilated, and bytes deliver entire lives unless latency impedes them from doing so.

In this cyberhuman condition, collectivity and the political utopias that were based on it have been swallowed up, as Siva Vaidhyanathan has pointed out, by the apparent democratic flatness of social media. A well-argued juridical-philosophical analysis of new government policy pairs nicely with one’s selfie-immortalized attempt to craft the perfect homemade pizza topping. We are a set of anti-holistic, compulsive, online subjectivities separated one from the other. On this side of our public front, sheltered in our little, privacy-friendly, personal monad, we feel alive thanks to the number of notifications and messages we receive, joyful or mortified for a like given or taken away, noble by forwarding the latest fragment of pseudo-truth written by someone who must know a lot because look how many followers they have. “There is no society, only individuals,” said Margaret Thatcher famously.

Neoliberal ideology enabled the interpersonal communication tools that have poured out of Silicon Valley to put in touch a “portion of me” with a “portion of you.” But never the collective “all of us”, for instance, with opposite views. Experience is compressed into a single signal transmitted through a single channel.

This has turned power vacuums into “communication vacuums”. We don’t speak to each other through social media, rather they speak of us. Not in the sense that they are alive or some sort of demiurgical, superior, God-like entity. We are spoken of any time the petty, mediocre narcissism inherent in all of us manifests in the constant stream of selfies or in a post oozing false modesty. The title of WhatsApp’s official post explaining its decision, “Keeping WhatsApp Personal and Private,” could not better illustrate the point.

“The medium is the message:” Marshall McLuhan’s teaching reminds us that social media, no matter how permissive or restrictive their policies towards content sharing may be, tell us collectivity is unimportant, and that only individuals matter. A true contradiction for media termed “social.”

And what about the pandemic?

The pandemic shares blessings and woes with social media. Both extend far beyond any border and overcome any wall. Both appear to be democratic. They spread through human contact (but how many authentic exchanges do we actually have with our “contacts?”). In other words, the pandemic and social media are both epidemically contagious; the former affects our health, the latter our communication. They ignore differences among people and Nation States’ rulings. The Facebook community is the single, largest group of people in the history of humankind and spans across countries, religions, and all other cultural differences.

On the other hand, both social media and the pandemic – first one, now the other – seem to be propelling us into a future where public liberties are privatised, the possibility of “going out” is limited, and our personal identity is hyper-subjectified and guarded. We exist in our homes (if we are lucky enough to have one) and we mistake ordinary expressions of life as liberty. Yet we have to protect ourselves when we venture out into the world.

Rather than virtually isolating ourselves while we are forced to do so physically, WhatsApp and other social media should strive harder to educate users on how to identify fake news. By constricting in-app choice, social media are allowing users to abdicate any form of personal responsibility, without which there can be no meaningful democracy.

Perhaps, this pandemic – besides underscoring the rotten relationship between human freedom and nature – exposes the worn-down relationship between tools of communication and society. To quote Antonio Gramsci: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

This article originally appeared in the “Can Europe Make It?” section of OpenDemocracy. 

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