WhatsApp 101: Is It Better to Use Other Instant-Messaging Apps?

Photo Courtesy: Alexander Shatov/Unsplash

Instant messaging (IM) apps allow us to connect and communicate with one another in seconds. People who are separated by hundreds or even thousands of miles can converse as if they were standing right next to each other. WhatsApp is the undisputed king of instant messaging apps; over 2 billion users message family, friends, and business associates each month as of 2021. The bulk of WhatsApp’s users live in India and in countries across Africa and South Asia. By and large, these users rely on the app day in and day out. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has only prompted more people to create accounts on WhatsApp.

Despite its international popularity, WhatsApp has a somewhat diminished presence in the United States. About 72 million Americans have WhatsApp accounts as of 2021 — a number dwarfed by India’s 400 million monthly users and Brazil’s 108 million users. When WhatsApp experienced a massive outage on October 4, 2021, it was generally perceived as a minor inconvenience in the United States. However, other countries suffered much more severe setbacks. Numerous businesses were hampered and countless families were effectively cut off from one another. WhatsApp is up and running again, but there are still lingering concerns about the app's future. Facebook Inc., WhatsApp's parent company, has come under fire once more for engaging in potentially harmful and deceptive business practices.

Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager and member of the company's civic integrity team, spoke at length about Facebook's unscrupulous operations before a Senate subcommittee on October 6. Haugen expressed that she believes Facebook "has the potential to bring out the best in us". However, she also vocalized concerns that "Facebook's products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy". Internal documents that Haugen presented suggest that Facebook intentionally promotes hate speech to specific users for the sake of bolstering engagement and virality. Congress has already considered breaking up Facebook (and other juggernauts in the big tech industry) after finding evidence that social media platforms misappropriate user data for profit. 

Frances Haugen's testimony, alongside the October 4 outage, only strengthens the argument that Facebook has too much power over its users and not enough transparency with them.