How WhatsApp conquered Westminster – and other workplaces

The politics of the group chat.

NS

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Two days after Theresa May coughed through her speech to Conservative party conference, a Tory MP’s plot to oust the beleaguered Prime Minister was exposed. Grant Shapps, the former party chairman, claimed he had a list of 30 MPs on his side.

The coup failed. But its details didn’t make their way to us through quotes from anonymous sources or column inches. We found out what happened from the Conservative MPs’ WhatsApp group.

“Get behind the PM,” the Foreign Secretary and chief leadership maneuverer Boris Johnson urged in a message on the group, to which most of the Tory parliamentary party belong. “Ordinary punters I have spoken to thought her speech was good and anyone can have a cold.”

Directing a message to Shapps, which all the members could read, the MP for Elmet and Rothwell Alec Shelbrooke added: “There are fewer signatures on your list than files sent to the CPS after the election campaign you ran as chairman.”

Dutifully screenshotted and sent to political journalists, these messages and others made their way from MP’s phones to the public. “It’s pinging continually,” says the Conservative MP Michael Fabricant, who is a member of the group. He tells me MPs’ conversations on there are about two-thirds serious, one-third trivial, and mainly have the function of a “support group”, where “colleagues pile in and offer help and advice”.

“Apart from being a self-help group, it actually strengthens an esprit de corps amongst parliamentary party members,” he adds, warning that leaks will risk making their “WhatsApp messages less spontaneous and frank”.

A key feature of the eight-year-old instant messaging service, acquired by Facebook in 2014, is how simple it is for users to create “group chats”. You can add up to 256 phone contacts to the same thread, label it, and, say, organise a hen party among friends of friends, share photos of your toddlers with faraway family members, or performatively thwart a plot against the Prime Minister with unprecedented ease.

Its tight security also appeals. It has end-to-end encryption, which means only the people sending and receiving the messages can read them. This protects you from eavesdropping – unless someone gets hold of your phone, or one of your fellow group members forwards the conversation.

Tory MPs aren’t the only ones who use the app. Politics plays out on all sorts of threads for different collections of MPs, including the surreptitiously named “Birthday Club” of Labour moderates, BAME Labour MPs, the 2017 intake, Conservative women, Labour women, and the “ERG” (European Research Group) of pro-Brexit Tories. Mirroring their subjects, Westminster lobby journalists also have their own WhatsApp group.

This can get confusing. In a message sent in January erroneously to the Labour women’s group but meant for a smaller circle of sympathetic colleagues, the Labour MP Lucy Powell attacked the party’s frontbench.

“We are in the most ludicrous, nonsensical, pretend, unreal, bollocks position as an opposition… Angela [Rayner] and Tulip [Siddiq] really think they’re going to be ministers in an actual Labour government very soon,” she sent, before hastily realising her error: “I’m so sorry. WhatsApp is a terrible thing. I have learnt a terrible lesson. You can have the last laugh at me being a cow.”

Yet Labour MPs generally have an “understanding” that they can speak “frankly and freely” in WhatsApp groups without being exposed to journalists, says Labour’s Bambos Charalambous, who was added to three WhatsApp groups of Labour politicians when he was elected this year. “It is built on trust and confidence and it would break down if anybody breaches [that].”

It is ease rather than encryption that attracts MPs to the app, according to Charalambous, who receives “at least half a dozen” messages on various MPs’ WhatsApp groups a day. “Encryption isn't really here nor there. It’s just WhatsApp’s more convenient,” he says. “We’ll have some lively banter and stuff. It’s friendly. We don’t have rows on our WhatsApp; I think we use it differently from the Tories.”

Yet the Tories also enjoy the flexibility and laid-back tone of group chats. “It shows Conservative MPs are normal human beings!” laughs Fabricant.

Informal workplace group chats are increasingly common, as colleagues and often bosses favour the user-friendly service above email, which is slower and more formal. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has even begun surveying HR managers about this new office phenomenon, so quickly has it taken hold.

A brief Google search will now show dozens of recent articles advising employees how to avoid bullying on WhatsApp threads, now that they’re communicating below the protective radar of company email.

The European Court of Human Rights struck fear into WhatsApp users last January when it ruled in favour of an employer checking its staff’s communications during work hours (and sacking the man in question for sending personal messages on Yahoo Messenger on a company device). “Your boss can now officially monitor your WhatsApp messages”, warned the Mirror at the time.

But in reality, the rules did not change. If you’re using a work device or the work network, and you’ve been notified (usually in your contract) that you’re not entitled to privacy when using these, then your employer can monitor your communication, if they have reason to suspect you’re breaching your contract. Employers must now give more specific warnings if they want to monitor internet use, as the ECHR ruling was overturned in September.

“Whether that is actually enforceable is a different question,” says Dr Steven J Murdoch, a Royal Society University Research Fellow in information security. In practice, if you’re using WhatsApp, particularly on a personal phone, it’s really difficult for your boss to find out what you’re saying – even if it’s on company time and on the company wifi.

“Looking at someone’s emails, if you can monitor the network, is pretty straightforward,” Dr Murdoch adds. “Intercepting a WhatsApp conversation is very challenging… But there’s nothing that stops one person in that group deciding they don’t like what they’re seeing and leaking it.”

Politicians may be changing their method of communication, but it seems their modus operandi won’t be changing with it.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.