The "uncle" of whatsapp

Image: Mohamed Abdelsadig


The original intention of Facebook it was publicity and not politics. But the instrument was increasingly used for political purposes.

Those who followed the last elections did not fail to see the emergence of a curious figure, who in Brazil came to be called the “Uncle of WhatsApp”. The “uncle” is sometimes an ordinary person, one of those whose transition from analogue to digital may not have been well resolved. Many are those characters who would once need a cell phone with big keys, or still fall into the "WhatsApp moan".

Others, easily victimized by scams Phishing (which require the ability to distinguish between authentic and fake links and sites), they think they are able to consider true news that is soon later proven false. But despite the falsity of the news it links, the “uncle” has actually helped to weave in recent years an incredible network of narratives which, if they are false, have caused very concrete effects.

The “WhatsApp uncle” (the term is independent of gender or age) is generally considered to be reliable, hardworking, with certain moral values ​​or family authority. As such, he is inserted into a network of other trusted people. Reliability is what largely guarantees the credibility of the message. And if the “uncle” is not the producer of the message, at least he is its diffuser, and disseminates content generally considered credible – therefore, also reliable – before the denial arrives (that is, if the denial arrives). He is the one who, in recent years, has warned families about falsehoods such as the “Chinese conspiracies” that led to the proliferation of the Coronavirus, the importance of “early treatment” or the “danger of the left” against a certain “myth” supposedly anointed by God . He was the one who knew how to multiply messages, many of them created by third parties, but in the exact amount so that the “uncle” thought he could do everything himself.

But despite all these stereotypes, it is important to understand that such positions carry a precise function. If the figure of the “uncle of whatsapp” in countries like Brazil is new, the function that this figure performs is not new. It was already predicted by the history of advertising and election campaigns, although it was never carried out, at least until the 2010s.

Martin Moore, in the book hacked democracy, analyzes how social networks have contributed to the crisis of contemporary democracies. Among other arguments, he presents there a problem of electoral campaigns already faced in surveys from the 1930s-1950s, but whose outcome was indirectly achieved by the Facebook (company that owns the WhatsApp).

Moore cites two surveys for this. The first, by Harold Lasswell (Technical Propaganda in the World War, 1927), was carried out at the end of the 1920s. It would prove that public opinion is essentially fluctuating, susceptible to any type of media like “a shellfish floating helplessly and oblivious to everything, in the wake of British warships” ( Moore, p. 172)). In the context of these statements was the radio and the fear that apocryphal broadcasts could induce crowds.

But the second survey, headed by Paul Lazarsfeld (The People's Choice: How the Voter Makes Up His Mind in a Presidential Campaign, 1948), reached diverse and unexpected results. As Martin Moore comments, “Lazarsfeld, Berelson and Gaudet discovered that people's political views were not, as their contemporaries thought, greatly modified by what they read or heard in the media. Friends, family and colleagues – in other words, the social network – influenced them much more. Personal suggestion is more diffuse and less self-selective than formal media,” the researchers wrote. “That is, politics reaches, especially in the case of the indifferent, much more easily through personal contacts than in any other way, for the simple fact that it unexpectedly presents itself as a secondary or marginal subject in a relaxed conversation” ( Moore p. 173).

In short: the most efficient political or electoral publicity would not occur from the top down, between the campaign and the voter, but horizontally, between the voters themselves; moreover, in a successful campaign, the natural, informal and everyday character of communication between voters would distance, camouflage the presence of the political campaign as an initial and triggering agent; finally, in the relationship between voters, the distance from the campaign would cause an impression of autonomy, freedom and self-discovery.

From this, an advertising agent who could use not only a vertical message, but make it circulate in the capillarity of personal relationships, and even under the impression that each diffuser would be an agent (and not a patient) of the message itself, would be able to find the goose that lays the eggs advertising gold. Capillary advertising that manages to erase the figure of the publicist, embodied in multiple trustworthy people, would be the best possible advertising.

Paul Lazarsfeld's research presupposed, therefore, a second result: within these horizontal relations, in the diffusion of messages there would be focal points, clusters of messages, represented by people who, more informed than the others, would be seen as more trustworthy. These people were named by Lazarsfeld et al. as “opinion leaders” (Moore 2022, 173). The best publicity, therefore, would not only be the one that manages to circulate horizontally (and managing to erase, or at least blur the vertical figure of the political campaign), but also the one that manages to attract the maximum possible number of “opinion leaders”.

Such findings – still comments Martin Moore – remained without effective application, since, until the turn of the XNUMXth century, there was no equipment that would make a campaign go beyond the vertical link with the voter and reach its horizontal, non-hierarchical and informal filters. , especially interviewed in the “opinion leaders”. But the turning point was that of social networks, and not only that: it is about social networks based on big data and segmentation from the 2010s onwards, following the ways of Google invest in advertising (focused on cookies that collect the user's actions), having as a major implementation model the Facebook and the way in which it began to collect and use its users' data. O Facebook, as a data collection and ultra-segmentation platform, made possible advertising models whose segmentation not only reached the user, but also located “opinion leaders”.

As is known, the initial intention of the Facebook it was publicity and not politics. But the instrument was increasingly used for political purposes. People who interact (click, like, share, etc.) with certain content (link, media, etc.) make it possible for this content to circulate to other people, regardless of the existence of an initial issuer. There is, as Martin Moore said above, precisely the creation of a marginal, secondary, relaxed circumstance, in short, a circumstance organically inserted in the natural and spontaneous relationships between the people who use the instrument.

Figures such as the digital influencer, and also the “uncle of the whatsapp“, become possible precisely under this architecture. A position of influence – whatever it may be – is not only important to generate and maintain the engagement of others on the platform, but also to spread themes under horizontal filters. This is the invention of a place, which, among others, is occupied by the figure of the “uncle”: he participates in coordinated campaigns, produces or disseminates content, recruits or cancels people, organizes groups, carries out targeted attacks or defenses, in short, helps to sew a general narrative that may even be immune to the facts.

The “uncle” receives third-party content and helps filter it, he endorses it, makes it trusted by others under his own name. imprimatur. Under such postures, the figure of the politician is erased, being able to give way to themes such as “freedom of expression” and left-wing plots that would dominate the press and try to “censor” social media. Without this function, it would be impossible to see fake news such as the arrest of Alexandre de Moraes brought about such effective results: people cried, jumped for joy or screamed, mobilized by news that, although coming from reliable people, was false.

As you know, the Facebook bought the WhatsApp for a number of reasons: extending the reach beyond computers and into smartphones, advance on alternative media (the same thing happened with the purchase of Instagram) and improve the collection of big data. Under this context, the WhatsApp allows you to cover even more interactions between users. It is not by chance, therefore, that well-oriented campaigns that allow sharing information not only between users, but from “opinion leaders” (influencers, “uncles” etc.), are more successful than the others.

In the composition of this machinery there are many other important details (such as the cultivation of farms of trolls, targeted harassment, coordination between activists and bots etc.). But a fundamental factor is the creation of one or more platforms on which all these means allow for horizontal communication. Horizontal tactics applied to opinion leaders allow the execution of strategies that erase the presence of political agents and ensure greater campaign effectiveness.

*Marcio Luiz Miotto Professor of Psychology at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF).


Martin Moore. hacked democracy. Sao Paulo, Ed. Habit, 2022.


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