In Brazil, the instant messaging app Whatsapp reigns supreme, with an estimated 45 million users. It's been a game-changer in making personal communication cheaper and easier, as well as affecting how politics and journalism work. Just this past weekend, major newspapers like Estado de São Paulo and Folha de São Paulo used Whatsapp to crowdsource the anti-government protests taking place across the country.
In June, a rumor began circulating on Whatsapp that President Dilma Rousseff had tried to kill herself. (See image on the left) The information was wholly untrue, but the president took it upon herself to address the rumor publicly. "I just came to speak to you all today because they said a little while ago that there was a rumor going around that I was hospitalized," she said to the press. "Do you all think that I was?"
Similarly, there have a host of cases involving false rumors circulating on Whatsapp, including a general strike, a meningitis outbreak, child kidnappings, a house-invading rapist, as well as a warning to take savings out of the bank because of a false rumor that the government was going to freeze bank accounts. (The federal government responded to that one, too.) There have been several incidents of rumors of a military coup.
Anti-government protests have been largely organized through social media, including Whatsapp. But the reasoning behind the pro-impeachment movement have not always been legitimate, legal reasons for backing an actual removal of a president. In some cases complaints have to do with the economic crisis, like rising gas and electricity prices and government spending. (See below)
Plus, Whatsapp has been used by police as a way to allegedly plan revenge killings, including massacres in the past year in Belém, Manaus, and last week in São Paulo. Police have used the app to share addresses of suspects and photos of victims. Brazilian security publication Ponte described Whatsapp as "adding fuel to the fire" of revenge killings by police. Whatsapp use by São Paulo police as a parallel system of communication for organizing reprisals was well documented by Vice Brazil in April, and is worth a read for those with a strong stomach.
The app has also been used by police and drug traffickers alike in Rio. Although I was unable to confirm their veracity, since those who showed me the messages were afraid to try to trace them, I heard three voice memos sent over Whatsapp in recent weeks that, real or not, help spread a sense of fear about the city's security. The first was from an alleged policeman involved in the capture and killing of the notorious drug trafficker Playboy this month in Rio. In the audio, he describes the action and chuckles as he describes Playboy alive on the way to the hospital and then arriving there dead. Record News also reported this audio circulating but could not confirm its veracity.
Another message came from an alleged drug trafficker saying there would be attacks in the city to avenge Playboy's death. Apparently there were a slew of these types of messages circulating on Whatsapp, enough for the police to investigate and try to trace them. Another audio clip I heard came from an alleged Rio policeman also talking about the aftermath of Playboy's death.
That said, there's a lot of interesting and constructive ways Brazilians are using Whatsapp. And even the police have used the app to fight crime rather than commit it. But it's something to keep an eye on as social media becomes more ubiquitous in daily life in Brazil.