Cyrus Stoller home about consulting

Using WhatsApp for political organizing

A friend was recently sending messages to voters in Georgia before the upcoming runoff elections using WhatsApp and he had an experience that reminded me of the power Facebook holds over our ability to effectively and freely communicate. In this case, the support team’s resolution seemed appropriate, but nevertheless unsettling.

To be clear, this post is not meant to be about Facebook and its policies; it’s a broader reflection on our dependence on private companies to exercise our democratic rights. This same scenario could have easily occurred using any messaging service, not just WhatsApp.


For the sake of this story, we’ll call my friend Paul. Here’s some background information:

Your phone number +1 (XYZ) XYZ-WXYZ is banned from using WhatsApp. Please contact customer support for assistance.

Reflection on the situation and the nature of spam

I imagine that Paul’s relatively sudden change in behavior triggered an automated system that flagged his account for spam activity. This was likely due to the dramatic increase in messages being sent, message similarity, messages being sent from the desktop application for the first time, or a number of recipients flagging the messages as unwanted.

From WhatsApp’s point of view, it’s hard to distinguish between unwanted messages being sent en masse and unwanted messages being sent on a relatively small scale to strangers for political outreach. Given that both types of messages are between parties that have never communicated together before and where the recipients may not want to be receiving the messages in the first place, there’s no obvious heuristic to tell the difference between these use cases.

Resolution paths

In this situation, I think WhatsApp could have sent Paul an automated warning to say that he could not longer send messages to accounts who had not responded to him for 72 hours while they assessed whether or not he was a real person. Or, the automated message could share that Paul’s account had been flagged for suspcious activity and would be shut off if the activity continued. The automated messaged would have had the desired effect of limiting spam while continuing to allow Paul to access his account.

Instead of taking this warning approach, Paul received a notification that his account had been banned. Not only could he no longer send messages, but he also could not look at previous messages that he had sent. Understandably, some of the exchanges he’d had with his host family in Latin America had sentimental value. So, the prospect of having his account banned in trying to help a political cause he cared about seemed particularly stark.

Chilling effect

While the net effect of WhatsApp’s current process for resolving this type of situation and WhatsApp sending a warning that service will shut off may be the same, the way in which the issue has been communicated to Paul made him worry that he had bricked his phone number.

In other words, he could continue to use his phone, but if he ever wanted to use WhatsApp again, he’d need to get a new phone number. This would be a huge hassle because it would require reaching out to each of Paul’s contacts and figuring out all of the services that use his phone number for multifactor authentication, so that he wouldn’t inadvertently lock himself out of other services.

Paul was also worried about how he’d handle future travel in Latin America. Having WhatsApp is key for communication, so before the issue was resolved, Paul started thinking about whether he’d need to get a “disposable” phone number the next time he went on a trip to communicate with friends and AirBnB hosts.

The risk of having to resolve this kind of hassle was not what Paul bargained for when he signed up to help the political organizer in Georgia. The result of this experience is that Paul does not want to use his personal WhatsApp again when helping to advance political causes he believes in.

Technology and political campaigns

Right now, poltical campaigns routinely ask volunteers to use their own technology when reaching out to potential supporters. For phone calls, they typically use an online dialer service that does not require the volunteer to use their personal phone number. And for many text message campaigns, the same is true.

But, there’s another significant portion of outreach where volunteers and staff members do use their personal phone numbers. Paul’s experience makes me wonder whether campaign related outreach should go through registered phone numbers (similar to short codes) that would identify themselves as associated with political campaigns so that recipients can decide to opt out of if they’re not interested it receiving campaign calls and texts. This seems like a system that would be better for voters not interested in being bombarded before election day and for volunteers eager to engage in the political system without the risk of unintended hassles related to their personal phone subscriptions.


This was a scenario where both Paul and WhatsApp were well-intentioned, but has left Paul less enthusiastic about volunteering for political causes he believes in. In the future, I hope political campaigns will work with service providers to make it easier for volunteers to engage without this risk. I also hope that private companies that facilitate communication will give users warnings before making them feel like they’ve been banned for life.

Category Reflection