Before moving back to México I used to only use WhatsApp to communicate with my family. Everyone in the US used iMessage and before I had left home, WhatsApp wasn’t around yet. But by the time I came back last year, I knew I would have to accept the world of WhatsApp groups and the fun meme forwarding culture that dominates Mexican everyday life.
While I have embraced this texting app, there is something that continues to bother me about how information is passed along within it. It is not news that the status of information and facts in the media is in jeopardy. We all know about fake news and how easily people are swayed by poorly edited videos with bad music and images designed to get you to swing one way or another in the political and social fabric.
But the thing is, when a society receives most of its information through a single channel that depends on your close social network, double checking stories and news becomes second hand to the infallible trust you have for the messenger.
It’s been a year since I’ve officially joined as an active participant in group chats that involve my friends and family members and I’ve learned a lot about how different topics and issues surrounding our lives are discussed.
On one hand, WhatsApp offers a quick and easy way of organizing. It allows large groups of people to receive need-to-know information about gatherings, meet-ups, parties and even protests that are happening within a community. This became very useful during the 2017 earthquake in central México where people organized to get help and update people as well as gather resources. Also for general social use, if it weren’t for these chat groups, my social life would basically be non-existent.
Meme sharing is also a predominant aspect of WhatsApp. It is through satire that Mexicans have always dealt with the anger and frustration that comes with having a corrupt government that both steals and kills it’s own citizens. We take pride in our ability to have a sense of humour for something that we often feel is out of our hands. If you can’t laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation, then what else is there?
WhatsApp is also how most conduct business. Emailing in no longer a viable way of getting things done as most don’t even check it. While most will tell you that they hate using it for their work, it is ultimately what happens because clients want easy access and the immediacy of personal service.
It also allows you to be updated in political ongoings. Inevitably, topics of politics, religion, and general world news often pop up. Everyone gives their own opinion; some share articles and links to back up what they say. Then someone decides that the conversation needs to come to a halt because they feel it’s either annoying, pointless, endless, or they have something more interesting or important to discuss.
This is where things get a little more complicated.
While WhatsApp is mostly used for social reasons, I have found that it is also where most get their news and/or is their source of information. I’ve often found myself double checking forwarded videos and chain messages that come with no source to realize that they’re mostly nonsensical and basically untrue. Many of these aren’t links or articles but typed up “news” stories that cross the line from news to propaganda.
For example, I recently received a chain message that asked Christians to pray for the execution of priests in Quaragosh, a city in Iraq, by the hands of Isis. Let me be frank; I’m usually biased against any praying chain messages that are forwarded to me. If a message adheres to a specific religion, I automatically take the information within the message to be untrue so I usually skip them. In this case, I took the time to read through it. As I noticed something wasn’t right considering Isis has lost most of its territory since 2016, and as a self proclaimed Googler of everything, I looked it up. And course, it was fake. Not only that, it was a chain message that had been going around for a couple of years. Once I’m aware of this I let the messenger know. I got no response and doubt that they let their messenger know.
Before moving to México, I received by direct message an eerie video about how Islam would be taking over the world in the upcoming years. The music had an ominous tone and the voiceover was speaking about how Christians must “stand strong against this trend”. I let the person that sent me the video know that, true or not if the religion is spreading, this was propaganda and to watch out for signs of this. All she responded was, “Well, I don’t know, but it’s scary.”
This year was the presidential election. Before AMLO won, videos were being forwarded around with what each candidate was saying at public forums. Dismayed and giddy, a family member showed me one she had received of our future president mumbling something to a crowd. After closer inspection I realized it had been altered. After pointing it out, she quickly moved past it and showed me another one.
There is something about how quick and easy these are passed along between group chats that all involve loved ones, that mostly no one bothers to close the app, open Google and do a quick little 2 min research. It’s easy to forward and receive messages that are designed to adhere to your sentimental side. All they need is the proper language and imagery.
How we respond to these is also problematic. Most read or watch the videos and, almost automatically, a biased conversation full of emojis and all caps ensues.
What I’m commenting is no different to what happens on Facebook and Twitter. But WhatsApp doesn’t have the heat on it that Facebook is getting even if does own it. It’s also meant for personal respondence so the idea of Mark Zuckerberg monitoring your messages is out of the question (although it probably happens). I’m also not one to decide who should think or believe what. I have my own biases like everyone else. But in México, WhatsApp is how we communicate for everything and this is problematic.
While the benefits are there, I’m often troubled about how opinions about important topics are being formed. While everyone’s opinions are (somewhat) valid, they are often based on falsely put together bits and pieces that come from ill informed, politically and religiously motivated sources that have been edited and watered down for easy forwarding. If we want to be an informed society that makes educated decisions which will impact our lives, we must all be aware of this and do our best to close the app, open google and do a little bit of research.