‘I don’t use social media, but you can find me on WhatsApp’. For years, this is the answer I have given people who enquire about my online habits. There was a mental line of demarcation for me between ‘real’ social media like Facebook and WhatsApp. After all, WhatsApp is really just regular texting. It’s only that it’s jazzed up by occasionally adding an emoji of a dancing lady in a red dress to adequately show your excitement. Right?
WhatsApp now plans to share user data with the wider Facebook companies including Instagram. Before you go deleting anything that you wouldn’t want WhatsApp to happen upon, the company assures that messages are end-to-end encrypted and inaccessible even to itself.
In fact, WhatsApp has attempted to clear up the controversy surrounding these changes by asserting that they mainly apply if you communicate with businesses through WhatsApp. These chats will be labelled clearly and businesses can store these logs on Facebook hosting services. Users will retain the ability to have chats disappear after 7 days.
Despite this, the problematic nature of privacy policies also lies in the way that they are presented. Those momentary pop-up windows that many of us agree to and dismiss without a moment’s consideration seem to be too lax a method of making important decisions on how our data is being used.
Why this shouldn’t happen to WhatsApp in particular
The reality is that people do not use WhatsApp the same way that they use Facebook’s other platforms. Sending a message to a close friend on WhatsApp does not hold the same weight as posting a photo on Instagram. We edit our pictures and think twice about what we post because we have come to expect exposure and monetisation on Instagram and Facebook.
When people assume that their activities are private, they behave differently. Facebook seems to be aware of this. While chats will not be monitored, other information including usage data can be linked to our identity. Facebook will be able to paint a larger picture of their users’ habits across Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp in order to-you guessed it-have more targeted ads.
Mourning the end of an era:
At the beginning of my experience with social media, Facebook was all the rage. For some reason, posting copious amounts of duck face selfies and frequent statuses telling people to ‘ask me anything’ seemed like an ideal use of my time. Despite my pining for a Facebook account, warnings from my parents and school about menacing, shadowy figures lurking online for just the right moment to pounce largely managed to ward me off. I didn’t realise at the time that these warnings contained a real concern that opening a Facebook account meant giving up a level of privacy that is difficult to scale back once it is lost.
When I finally managed to open a Facebook account of my own, I largely avoided posting. I am sad to say, however, that even my limited use of social media has not saved me the embarrassment of a few slip-ups. They say that nothing ever really disappears from the internet, but it helps me sleep at night to think of that selfie that I graced with a green and blue filter being erased from existence. I hope that my posts using text speak like ‘4rm’ instead of ‘from’ went along with it.
Later, my reasoning for being wary of social media shifted from loosely obeying my concerned parents and school to becoming more aware of the problematic ways that our data is used by social media companies. The aggressive methods of collecting data employed by companies such as Facebook can make you think that even your innermost thoughts are being monitored. How else would Facebook manage to bring up an ad for that pair of shoes you have been wanting just as you thought of it? It’s not mind reading but an advanced algorithm. And it knows everything about us.
WhatsApp became my haven where I could connect without ‘really’ using social media. To think that the invasive methods used in other Facebook Companies to push ads are insidiously wrapping their tendrils around WhatsApp is disappointing and marks the end of an era. WhatsApp is a platform that we know for hosting fear-mongering aunties and uncles, who send desperate chain messages warning us about serious threats that are somehow never reported on the news. Make no mistake, the largely harmless platform that we’ve come to love is moving towards being monetised.
WhatsApp-and by extension Facebook- has given its customers until May 15th to digest the new privacy policies. If some of your WhatsApp data being used to bombard you with even more ads doesn’t take your liking, you could join the influx of former WhatsApp customers flocking to rivalling platforms like Signal and Telegram. The choice is yours.