In much of the world, WhatsApp is an important political battleground:
- Quartz Africa: The sophisticated ways WhatsApp was used by political operatives in Nigeria’s 2019 elections
- Wall Street Journal: Fake News Runs Wild on WhatsApp as India Elections Loom
- BBC: How WhatsApp is being abused in Brazil’s elections
But it’s not yet a major platform in the U.S. I’ve got a couple of theories I’d be interested in exploring further with more data.
The simplest answer may be the correct one in this case. Only 68.1 million U.S. mobile users are on WhatsApp. Compared to 205 million U.S. based Facebook users, it’s clear why campaigns aren’t focused on WhatsApp.
But this isn’t the case in the countries above. India has 400 million WhatsApp users. In Nigeria, 91% of voters interviewed were users and in Brazil there are 120 million users, more than half the population.
Are Americans more politically outspoken?
Messaging tools like WhatsApp, sometimes called “dark social networks,” have caused concerns for their ability to hide disinformation since outside parties – even the developers themselves – don’t have visibility into the content shared on these platforms. This is a strength for voters who may wish to discuss controversial political matters in a more private setting.
The U.S. is the home of 24 hour cable news and we can’t eat breakfast without expressing a political opinion.
WhatsApp is a mobile-only platform and in much of the rest of the world wireless connectivity leapfrogged wired internet connectivity. In the U.S. the mobile revolution happened after the desktop revolution.
In the U.S., significant resources are devoted to developing and leveraging voter data. Presently, WhatsApp doesn’t offer the sort of targeting that other channels like online, phones, mail, and even TV provide to U.S. campaigns.
Lower Participation Rates
The U.S. trails most of the world in terms of voter participation, so, ironically, election activity isn’t actually as ubiquitous in the U.S. as it is in other parts of the world where they devote significant government resources to drive turnout and participation. Even though there are 68.1 million users on WhatsApp, they more than likely aren’t reliable voters, so campaigns aren’t focused on reaching them where they are.
Money & Politics
The U.S. spends more money on politics than most other countries. In places where spending is limited or even restricted, campaigners have to get creative about how they reach voters, so they turn to more organic platforms like WhatsApp.
In the U.S. we’re no strangers to using messaging platforms for campaigning – after all, 2018 was the text messaging election – but SMS doesn’t have the user distribution potential that platforms like WhatsApp does. I predict that as demographics change in the U.S. and messaging adoption increases, campaigns will begin looking seriously at WhatsApp and Messenger as campaign media.