Chat Apps and Communication During Political Unrest


In this blog post, we survey some of the literature that has addressed how journalists and citizens have used chat apps during political unrest. In our upcoming report, “Meeting in Digital Spaces: News Organizations Uses of Chat Apps during Political Unrest“, we define political unrest as widespread dissatisfaction with a government, manifesting itself in organized protests with different levels of intensity and scale.

Much of the scarce literature on journalistic uses of chat apps focuses on advantages of using such technology. This can involve sourcing through WhatsApp, which ties accounts to real numbers, so journalists can easily call back to verify information (Barot et al. 2015). It can also involve encrypting information to facilitate contact with sources who do not otherwise feel secure (Barot et al. 2015). Chat apps can also help news organizations distribute and push news content to audiences (Barot et al. 2015). For reporters, chat apps allow them to be witnesses at a distance (Mabweazara 2011). And for large and complex stories, chat apps allow a team or reporters to share information in real-time with each other and with newsrooms (Mabweazara 2011). Journalists can also source news by subscribing to receive mass texts from protest groups and other participants in a public debate. Mass texts are particularly important in crisis situations because they allow quick access to watchdog groups (Mabweazara 2011). These new flows of information have disrupted the relationships that journalists and NGOs have had in the past (Cooper 2007).

Chat apps provide opportunities for journalists and citizens taking part in political unrest, whether it is in the form of using SMS, Voxer, Viber, and WhatsApp to coordinate and organize street protests (Skålén, Abdul Aal, and Edvarsson 2015; Stacey 2015; Mottiar 2014; Lee et al., 2015). In doing so, chat apps are becoming the sites of new trust among users (Haciyakupuglu and Zang 2015, Lee and Ho 2014). Chat apps have also been reported to foster a sense of shared identity and solidarity among participants (Treré 2015) and build social bonds (Haciyakupuglu and Zang 2015). Treré (2015) noted how “social media backstage practices” that took place on private Facebook messages and WhatsApp groups, such as sharing memes and words of support, built an enduring sense of identity among YoSoy 132 protesters in Mexico. Similarly, the sharing of confidential and trustworthy information and discussion that took place in private groups on WhatsApp and Facebook seems to create the most long-lasting social bonds (Haciyakupuglu and Zang 2015). Scholars also noted hindrances associated to chat apps such as rumors or misinformation (Malka, Ariel, and Avidar, 2015; Cottle 2011), formal (China’s Great Firewall) or informal (self-censorship in the face of surveillance) censorship (Lee and Ho 2014; Skålén, Abdul Aal, and Edvardsson 2015; Stacey 2015; see also Balkin, 2014).

Our report contributes to this literature in three ways: it explores the challenges of covering political unrest, highlights the ways reporters and news organizations are deploying chat apps as part of their news production strategies, and identifies a set of changes in crisis journalism as chat apps become a mainstay of reporting.

Written in collaboration with Jesse Woo. See previous Tow blog posts on the project here and here


Useful references

Balkin, Jack M. (2014) ‘Old-school/new-school speech regulation’, Harvard Law Review

Barot, Trushar and Oren Eytan (2015) ‘Guide to Chat Apps’, Tow Center for Digital Journalism

Benton, Joshua (2014) ‘Here’s some remarkable new data on the power of chat apps like WhatsApp for sharing news stories’, Nieman Journalism Lab.

Cooper, Glenda (2007) ‘Anyone Here Survived a Wave, Speak English and Got a Mobile? Aid Agencies, the Media and Reporting Disasters Since the Tsunami’, The 14th Guardian Lecture, Oxford.

Cottle, Simon (2011) ‘Media and the Arab uprisings of 2011: Research notes’, Journalism

Haciyakupoblu, Gulizar and Zhang, Weiyu (2015) ‘Social Media and Trust during the Gezi Protests in Turkey’, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.

Lee, Kingyshon and Ming-sho, Ho (2014) ‘The Maoming Anti-PX Protest of 2014’, China Perspectives.

Lee, Paul S.N., So, Clement Y.K., and Leung, Louis (2015) ‘Social media and Umbrella Movement: insurgent public sphere in formation’, Chinese Journal of Communication

Mabweazara, Hayes Mawindi (2011) ‘Between the newsroom and the pub: The mobile phone in the dynamics of everyday mainstream journalism practice in Zimbabwe’, Journalism.

Malka, Vered, Ariel, Yaron, Avidar, Ruth (2015) ‘Fighting, worrying and sharing: Operation ‘Protective Edge’ as the first WhatsApp war’, Media, War & Conflict.

Mottiar, Shauna (2014) ‘Protest and Participation in Durban: A Focus on Cato Manor, Merebank and Wentworth’, Politikon South African Journal of Political Studies.

Skålén, Per, Abdul Aal, Kotaiba, and Edvardsson, Bo (2015) ‘Cocreating the Arab Spring: Understanding Transformation of Service Systems in Contention’, Journal of Service Research

Stacey, Emily (2015) ‘Networked Protests: A Review of Social Media Literature and the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement’, International Journal of Civic Engagement and Social Change.

Treré, Emiliano (2015) ‘Retaining, proclaiming, and maintaining collective identity in the #YoSoy132 movement in Mexico: an examination of digital frontstage and backstage activism through social media and instant messaging platforms’, Information, Communication & Society.