WhatsApp’s reckoning is long overdue – but it may finally be here

The messaging app has enjoyed a near pristine reputation for the last decade. But users are beginning to desert it. 

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When the Cambridge Analytica scandal began to unfold in March this year, with the revelation that Facebook allowed third parties to access vast amounts of users’ data, many regarded it as an unforgivable act.

Facebook itself only releases headline user figures, which showed the number of North American users fell for the first time ever in the final quarter of 2017 (from 185 million to 184 million). But anecdotal evidence suggests wider disengagement.

Many have replaced Facebook’s Messenger service with WhatsApp – a messaging service that has become synonymous colloquially with safety, security and privacy (though, ironically, it has been owned by Facebook since its $19bn purchase in 2014). The app is perhaps best known for its end-to-end encryption, meaning that messages can only be seen by the users sending them and are protected from surveillance and security breaches.

Since its launch in 2009, WhatsApp has experienced few problems and maintained its reputation as a largely trustworthy platform (it now has more than a billion daily users). But over the last year, this has begun to change.

In September 2017, six months before the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton announced he was stepping down from Facebook, incurring an $850m financial hit in order to leave early.

Just a few months later, in February, he ploughed £50m into Signal, another end-to-end encrypted messaging service. The funds were used to establish a non-profit foundation, making Signal free from advertising and other forms of monetisation. The firm declared that the aim was “to support, accelerate, and broaden Signal’s mission of making private communication accessible and ubiquitous”.

After the Cambridge Analytica story humiliated his former company, on 21 March Acton tweeted, “It is time. #deletefacebook.” He then fell silent. WhatsApp, however, was seemingly shielded from the fallout. But that changed in July when the New York Times published a graphic, interactive piece titled “How WhatsApp Leads Mobs to Murder in India”. The article detailed how fake stories were able to proliferate via the service, most notably those on alleged child kidnappings, leading to mob lynchings of innocent people who happened to resemble the supposed perpetrators. After global coverage of the story, WhatsApp responded by imposing limits on how many times a message could be forwarded, reducing the ease with which misinformation could spread.

The platform’s media honeymoon, however, was over. On 26 September, matters worsened. Acton gave an exclusive interview to Forbes in which he detailed his thwarted ambitions for the service, his response to its acquisition by Facebook and his subsequent departure from the company. He depicted a tech behemoth obsessed with monetisation and insensitive to its users’ needs.

Crucially, he used the interview to encourage WhatsApp users to stop using the platform and Facebook altogether.

Though Acton is hardly the first start-up founder to express frustration with a parent company, his previous silence gave his words greater weight. “I sold my users’ privacy to a larger benefit,” he confessed. “I made a choice and a compromise. And I live with that every day.”

The implications for WhatsApp are profound. A service that has enjoyed largely uncritical media coverage is finally being subjected to scrutiny. Its reputation as a highway for rumour prompted news organisations to engage fact-checkers in advance of this month’s Brazilian presidential election. In countries such as Singapore, the service is commonly used by fraudsters to steal private information (as it has been in the UK).

After such failures, WhatsApp’s pristine image can no longer endure. Several current and former Facebook executives responded angrily to Acton’s interview. David Marcus, the vice president of messaging products, described his comments as “a whole new standard of low-class”.

But the public response to Acton’s intervention has been overwhelmingly positive. Many social media users have joined the campaign to delete WhatsApp and defect to Signal. The former’s ethical reputation has long been based on perception, rather than reality. For WhatsApp, it seems a much-delayed reckoning has finally arrived.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The fury of the Far Right