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  1. The Weekend Essay
11 May 2024

The rise of WhatsApp government

How the text message is transforming our democracies.

By Jonathan White

The exercise of public authority has always been shaped by the technologies available. From the printing press to the telegraph, radio to email, new inventions have left their mark on how decisions are taken and by whom. This pattern continues in the age of the smartphone, apparently indispensable to the professional lives of today’s officials and politicians. “You need one these days,” the then prime minister Boris Johnson noted during the Covid-19 pandemic, “I need to be in touch with people.” His style of communications would emerge when Dominic Cummings leaked his messages, including one describing the health secretary during the pandemic Matt Hancock as “totally f***ing hopeless”. Subsequent revelations from the period leave the distinct impression that the country is run by WhatsApp.

Britain is hardly alone in this. Concerns about text-message governance reach far and wide. In Brussels, the shadow of “Pfizergate” hangs over the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen ahead of the European Parliament elections in June. The scandal dates to a New York Times piece in April 2021 which claimed the EU’s Covid vaccine deal with Pfizer had been negotiated by a series of messages and calls between her and the company’s chief executive. “That personal diplomacy played a big role in a deal,” said the newspaper. This suggestion of one-to-one negotiation on a high-profile matter prompted calls, notably from the European Ombudsman, for the messages to be made public. The Commission’s failure to do this led the ombudsman to conclude that this was a case of maladministration, and it is still facing lawsuits.

Critical discussion of government-by-text has tended to focus on access. Officials, it seems, do important business in a way the public can barely oversee. These concerns about transparency have been well made. That instant messaging services tend to be in the hands of large private companies is clearly another part of the problem. And there are the security issues that have been raised ever since President Barack Obama brought his Blackberry to the White House. But also at stake is how key decisions are taken in the moment. As discussions move from the meeting room to the virtual space of the chat group, they move into a world of heightened informality and fuzzy ethical boundaries.

Consider some features of the technology. Unlike a physical meeting, this is a form of interaction with no set beginning or end. Conversations begin at the initiative of one party, and depend on quick responses. A case in Spain at the height of the pandemic showed the risks. Madrid’s mayor José Luis Martínez-Almeida is said to have got agreement for medical supplies in a brief WhatsApp exchange around 1am on 24 March 2020. One councillor was excluded because he was not checking his phone, and others complained they were rushed into the agreement. Awkward details about the deliberation soon emerged: the deal involved a relative of the mayor, the supplies were overpriced and exorbitant commissions were charged, leading the contract to be denounced as a “scam” at the city’s expense. Almeida admitted it was a mistake but defended councillors’ actions at a time when it was so difficult to obtain scarce resources. An anti-corruption case against the suppliers was later investigated by a court.

The spontaneous nature of instant messaging means those involved are often being extracted from another activity or caught at an informal moment. This is a medium based on distraction and immediacy. Of course, much depends on how the technology is used. Not everyone is texting in their pyjamas or watching TV at the same time – but little ensures they are not.

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There are questions of power at stake. Instant messaging allows leaders to detach themselves from the supporting officials and civil servants who might regulate their actions. Awkward individuals can be left out, and trusted advisers or favoured reporters brought in. Corporate interests can make themselves felt. This is a technology well-suited to bypassing hierarchies and creating shadow networks of influence, in a way that may not always be noticed. Those who might be stopped at the door in a physical setting can be “in the room” in a virtual one, while absences that would be notable in-person may be more easily overlooked.

The standard response of officials is to say that nothing of importance is decided this way. Replying to the European Ombudsman in summer 2022, the European Commission stated: “Due to their short-lived and ephemeral nature, text and instant messages in general do not contain important information relating to policies, activities and decisions of the Commission.” One can imagine a spectrum of uses to which messaging is put: if the making of decisions forms one pole, the other could be characterised as “harmless chitchat”, with a range of practices in the grey area in between (information sharing, deliberation, opinion formation, cultivation of contacts, private criticism of colleagues). But we have seen enough to know that not everything falls at the more innocuous end: that major decisions can be prepared and taken this way.

What such technologies encourage is the blurring of boundaries – between the formal and the informal, between different institutions, and between the business of government and the world beyond. Politics has always depended on rituals to reinforce the separation of offices and persons. Whether it is the crown of a monarch or the layout of a parliament, habits of dress and arrangements of space are intended to lend gravitas to a situation, shaping the self-understanding of participants as representatives of a wider interest – a social group, an institution, the public good. While some rituals can be replicated in mediatised communication, many cannot. Those who engage each other in this setting are deprived of the contextual cues intended elsewhere to depersonalise their encounter. Chumminess rules.

Government by instant messaging is emblematic of something wider – of a world in which key political decisions are taken informally, and power concentrated in the hands of key individuals and the networks they form. We tend to think of politics in terms of dry institutions and bureaucratic logic, but this picture can be quite misleading. From domestic to foreign policy, there is a wider story of the “de-institutionalisation” of power, as officials act with personal discretion and ties of trust override the formal definition of roles. This is what the making of a ruling elite looks like. Lockdowns may have given this trend a distinctive impetus, but the patterns are likely to endure. Whether it is policy on immigration, inflation or Israel, a key question will be which WhatsApp group leads it.

How much of this is really new? There have long been concerns in politics that the important conversations are had in the hallways, where no public record is taken. One can assume that instant messaging appeals in part because it allows those in authority to do what they are already inclined to do. So how much significance should we attach to the technology? Is it just the latest way of doing what has long been done and could be done without it?

One way it leaves a distinctive mark is by making these patterns of behaviour more traceable. Messages can be deleted, giving a sense of control in the moment, but no one can be certain that they have not meanwhile been copied or shared by their interlocutor(s). There is, as we have seen, ample potential for leaks – this way of operating can go badly wrong.

This makes the embrace of the technology more puzzling than it might seem. To be sure, it is attractively convenient. It may be socially and psychologically rewarding too, in so far as to be part of an “inner circle” is to have access and prestige, the chance to feel superior to those on the outside. Yet the traceability of these communications means they come with evident risks. For when they come to public attention – when newspapers can run stories on an official’s “personal diplomacy” – they cause discontent and reputational damage. These are foreseeable frictions. Von der Leyen had been caught in an earlier scandal in Germany to do with the transparency of her mobile-phone use while defence minister in Berlin. Though she was cleared of responsibility in that prior instance, she can hardly have been unaware of the pitfalls of messaging.

If the technology is embraced despite the risks, arguably this highlights something about the priorities of those in power. Informal methods appeal because those involved are far more interested in getting tangible “results” than living by the democratic rules. They feel it is enough to get things done, and are broadly contemptuous of the constraints on how. Scholars of politics distinguish between the legitimacy of good results and that of good methods – between output and procedural legitimacy. The prevalence of instant messaging reflects the dominance of the first over the second.

Output legitimacy has always been central to transnational institutions. It corresponds to the centrality of technocracy in settings such as the EU, where an instrumentalist, problem-solving outlook is central to public authority. Over time, however, it has also become central to authority in the national context. The weakening of parties, and of organised ideological politics in general, has meant that representatives define themselves less by normative commitments than by their capacity to act decisively. Aware that significant portions of their electorate are drawn to technocratic, populist or “techno-populist” styles of politics that seek to pursue the public good in an unmediated way, they too can become impatient with procedure and keen to demonstrate their problem-solving capacity. In the long run, that claim to legitimacy depends on getting good results, but in the first instance it simply depends on results – decisions that can be cited as signs of activity.

In this way instant messaging provides insight into the outlook of policymakers. For the very reason that it heightens the risks involved, it lays bare the extent of their attachment to irregular ways of governing in the service of getting things done.

This has implications for what it might mean to constrain the practice. Reformers tend to call for better regulation of the technology. The European Ombudsman has made various recommendations: that instant messages be recognised as EU documents, kept as records, and be available for inspection when requests for public access are made. Stronger rules on the use of communications technology exist in fields such as financial regulation, suggesting they can be drawn up where there is the political will.

But such moves neglect how the technology ties in with the wider appeal of irregular modes of rule. Make one technology transparent and others will be adopted to the extent they afford the same thing. Positive change would instead have to involve changing the wider conditions that make inappropriate uses of the technology attractive, rebalancing in particular the standards of legitimacy to which officials are held. In place of a technocratic emphasis on “outputs” alone, it would mean reviving a model of government in which wider participation and scrutiny are valued. It would mean strengthening constitutional mechanisms, and ensuring leaders are better tied to democratic institutions and organisations that can punish them for their transgressions.

Government by messaging makes the pathologies of contemporary politics more extreme and more traceable, but it is not the heart of the problem. It will not be deterred by rules of good conduct, nor by arbitrary or motivated leaks. Only structures that leave less discretionary power in the hands of individuals will do something to address the fundamentals.

[See also: Protest nation]

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