As of December 2017, Whatsapp announced that its mobile messaging app boasted over 1.5 billion active daily users. It can be safely assumed that readers of this article are likely to be part of this dizzyingly large figure. With approximately a fifth of the world’s population possessing the application on their smart devices, there are many varying implementations of the functions of Whatsapp in the average daily life from country to country.
For instance, in the United States, Facebook Messenger is the primary instant messaging service of choice amongst Americans. Only a third of internet users within the US have downloaded the app, with these users predominantly consisting of travellers or individuals with connections abroad. However, heading south to Latin America, there is a dramatic difference. The combined texters of Mexico and Brazil represent 38 percent of Whatsapp’s user base, reflecting the replacement of traditional SMS services by Whatsapp in this region.
Zooming in closer to home, the Whatsapp group function was used to connect approximately 270 students from around the globe within the 2017 cohort of the international track of the communication science course of the University of Amsterdam, months before they even arrived in Amsterdam.
Taking into consideration the question posed at the start of this article, the above mentioned users chiefly use Whatsapp for social networking, to communicate for work and pleasure.
The situation in Sudan
However, take a brief moment to envision living within a Big Brother-esque society where information is monitored constantly by the government, where the only reliable news you can possibly obtain is through an encrypted network of like-minded citizens, who spread what’s up through Whatsapp.
Imagine the reporter’s surprise when she sat down one afternoon for a cup of coffee with her friend Peter Miller, a Ph.D candidate in the anthropology department of the University of Amsterdam, only to discover that the main function of Whatsapp in Sudan is oriented around social activism.
A nation with a bleak history of repression and violence, President Omar al-Bashir’s authoritarian government is notorious for shutting down local unbiased newspapers, and quashing voices of dissent. Human rights watchdog Freedom House reports on governmental measures taken against anti-regime protesters, stating “censorship of opposition news outlets and forums online; the deployment of a cyber jihadist unit to monitor social media websites; and the harassment and arrest of digital media activists and online journalists”.
Imagine the reporter’s surprise when she discovered that the main function of Whatsapp in Sudan is oriented around social activism
Whatsapp: a game changer?
As a result, “Whatsapp has become a huge phenomenon in Sudan”, says Mr. Miller. “There’s a Whatsapp group for everything. People create groups to plan strike movements, sell beauty products, and share gossip. Everyone is a member of at least one group that contains hundreds of people whom they barely know”. Mr. Miller goes on to describe, “Especially news shared in these Whatsapp groups, content is raw and direct”.
Raw is the right word to describe a video that went viral in January 2018. Having been a research fellow in the capital city of Khartoum for six months, Mr. Miller became a member of a Whatsapp group known as “CEDEJ🇫🇷-KRT-🇸🇩”. On January 11, he received shocking civilian footage of Professor Qassim Badri, the dean of the UN-funded al-Ahfad Women’s University in Khartoum.
Badri was caught on film, brutally assaulting female students on campus in retaliation to their peaceful protests against the high prices of food at the university. This video was instantly shared across hundreds of Whatsapp groups, resulting in a fast chain reaction of sharing that brought the controversy to light.
How it’s worked so far
The impact reached as far as the headquarters of the UN, which subsequently released a statement on January 25, announcing their withdrawal of all funding and support for al-Ahfad until appropriate measures had been taken by the university administration to address the controversy.
With the Internet in Sudan monitored by the National Intelligence and Security Service’s Cyber Jihadist Unit, it was logical for both young and old Sudanese to move towards an integrated platform that is easily accessible, facilitates sharing, and safely retains user confidentiality. Rishan Oshi, an activist and journalist based in Khartoum, explains, “I use it because the security services announced that they are watching Facebook and other means of communication, so WhatsApp is safer in that respect”.
The meaning behind the tool
It is interesting to observe the usage of Whatsapp in Sudan, through which a refreshingly candid subculture of citizen journalism has been fostered. Real events are captured and shared in real time. Additionally, the intimate nature of Whatsapp groups cultivates discussion amongst citizens, encouraging reflection and action thanks to the sharing of vital information.
The significance of the same mobile application can vary significantly depending on the context of usage. Wherever you are the next time you open Whatsapp on your phone, remember that someone in Sudan is likely to be “online” too, fighting for their rights.