A phenomenon of technological appropriation. This is how it describes Pablo Bello, Director of Public Policies of WhatsApp for Latin America, the close links that have been generated between Latino users and the popular messaging service owned by Facebook. “Latin Americans took over WhatsApp,” he emphasizes.
Within the framework of Hispanic Heritage Month —which is celebrated from September 15 to October 15 and which celebrates the contributions of this community in the United States—, we review the close relationship that exists between WhatsApp and Latin America.
WhatsApp is the third most popular social network with more than 2 billion users; More than 100 million messages are sent every day. And although in North America, part of Europe and Oceania the most used messaging service is Facebook Messenger, no one doubts its leadership in Latin America.
Aware of this link with the Latino community, WhatsApp prepares some initiatives as part of Hispanic Heritage Month. “We will launch a package of stickers together with a famous Latin American singer, we will announce a great alliance for verification of data with Latino media and we will reinforce vaccination efforts in the Latino community in the United States together with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ”says Bello .
Pablo Bello took over as WhatsApp’s first Director of Public Policies for Latin America in August 2019, after a career linked to the field of telecommunications. Among other positions, he was Chilean Vice Minister of Telecommunications (2002-2006) and Executive Director of the Inter-American Association of Telecommunications Companies (ASIET).
To Bello’s professional experience is added his extensive knowledge of the region: although he is Chilean, he was born and lived his childhood in Peru, his university stage and first working years were in Chile, he lived a couple of seasons in Spain, later he moved to Colombia and since 2019 resides in Brazil, where the regional headquarters of WhatsApp is located.
“What matters from public policy is that companies invest, develop and implement new technologies and services. For that, you have to understand how private companies work. From companies, it is essential to understand how they work, how it is articulated in society with its political and democratic systems, and that is a learning that I have experienced from both sides ”, he explains.
What have been the main challenges when taking office?
We have built a team to face the challenges of the region that affect platforms such as WhatsApp, such as disinformation, electoral processes, integrity issues, but also opportunities such as bringing people closer, facilitating digital commerce, that companies can do their work, grow and defend themselves in a context of pandemic. We have worked with electoral authorities and the media on election issues, with the WHO, and the ministries of health of virtually every country in the region to address disinformation in a pandemic context. What is coming is to make it easier for Latin Americans to access electronic commerce, company information, local commerce, because we know the importance that WhatsApp and technology have for the Latin American economy.
Is Latin America prone to these disinformation phenomena?
We do not have hard statistics to say it, but certainly in Latin America the phenomenon is important, as well as in other regions such as India or Asia. From the Latin American perspective, there is a great challenge that we must face together, where the platforms have a role, the users, the governments and the media. To the extent that we are all capable of doing our part, we can win. In the last two years, we have made substantial progress: the electoral authority in Brazil recognized the effort we made to confront misinformation in the electoral context. And the OAS, in its report on the elections, said that Brazil defeated two viruses: that of the pandemic and that of disinformation.
The importance of Latin America for WhatsApp is reflected in the creation of this position, but in what other elements is it expressed?
I would say that it is expressed in multiple aspects and is something bi-directional. On the one hand, we have a task in the Latin American team that is to translate the advances, product changes and challenges for the region. And work with stakeholders Latinos, civil society and governments to explain and address existing challenges. But also from the region we feed the strategic decisions of the company at a global level, and that is very valuable: the voice of Latin America is expressed in WhatsApp. It is not that we are only ambassadors for the company in the region.
How does this happen in practical terms?
There are multiple examples. He mentioned the issues of misinformation and integrity, which are important in the region and we are making efforts to give them greater relevance. Some pilot projects began in the region, such as working with Google to facilitate search in the highly shared messages search engine, which started in Brazil and Mexico. A few days ago a pilot was announced globally, which is to create a yellow pages system in Sao Paulo that allows you to search for information from the app. In addition, chatbox informative with electoral authorities of Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Mexico (we are talking with Chile). Or the project of the Chilean constituent process and developed by civil society organizations to facilitate communication. They are unique and avant-garde projects worldwide. Another example is the Women’s Ministries of Chile and Argentina, with whom we facilitate women at risk of domestic violence to communicate silently and safely with the authorities. And now in India there is a similar project based on our experience.
What factors explain why WhatsApp is so important in the region, as opposed to the United States, where the app most popular is Facebook Messenger?
There are various reasons. WhatsApp is a app simple, simple, secure, private, reliable, which makes it highly valued throughout the world and in Latin America in particular. Speculating on a theory, it has to do with the times when the internet went global. Messenger is older and that could be a reason. In Latin America there are specific factors that greatly helped the massification of WhatsApp: being able to travel between countries without having to resort to roaming or the ability to use it through any connection and have a voice or video call. These attributes work well in Latin America. In the United States there are roaming internally, almost all SMS are free, which makes the platforms linked to SMS have a stronger development. But at WhtasApp we are delighted that it is by far the most loved and used platform. That is a challenge and a responsibility, and we are doing it.
Facing the viralization of fake news has been one of WhatsApp’s main challenges, especially during the pandemic. Therefore, it has implemented measures to limit the forwarding of messages. The last one, which made it difficult to share messages that have been forwarded more than five times through the platform, implied a 70 percent drop in this practice. “Few internet companies have made such a serious and systematic effort so that in certain cases the app it is used less ”, explains Bello.
Many. The first, the importance of WhatsApp in Latin America. It is a clear and notorious fact. And an aspect that we sometimes have to explain to our colleagues in the United States: Latin Americans took over WhatsApp, we own WhatsApp. We use it with great intensity, we generate innovations linked to its use. In a context where these levels of technological appropriation occur, any change that is implemented, generates and causes a type of noise and resistance. “Why are you changing my WhatsApp?” Is the perception. By the way, it is also a lesson for the platform, but also for all internet companies, that all policy information processes are complex, you have to explain a lot and break mistrust. We believe it is an update in favor of consumers, but that must be explained a lot, in a context where there is misinformation, rumors and interests. From the users’ perspective, it has been successful: the vast majority have understood and accepted the policies and changes.
Was this resistance experienced more strongly in Latin America?
I’d say it happened simultaneously globally. Regulatory public policy challenges were repeated in many latitudes. I would not say that in Latin America it has been especially complex. On the contrary, I would say that it is one of the regions where WhatsApp is most loved, where there is more trust in WhatsApp. There was no loss of users at all, on the contrary, all statistics and numbers are increasing and positive. Beyond the accident that affects certain perceptions, we believe that this is already quite overcome.