That Day In Brazil When WhatsApp Didn’t Work

A temporary ban on the Facebook-owned messaging service sent countless Brazilians into a momentary panic, revealing how rapidly communication habits have evolved.

A tap away
A tap away
Felipe Maia

SAO PAULO â€" In the garden next to a shopping mall on São Paulo's Paulista Avenue, 22-year-old vendor Camila Lima is taking a break to call her mother, who lives on the other side of the country.

Normally her fingers would do the talking, but today she has her cellphone up against her ear. Why? Because two hours earlier, WhatsApp â€" the popular messaging service and Camila's go-to means of communicaiton â€" was blocked nationwide due to a dispute over access to encrypted data.

The ban, ordered Monday by a judge in the northeastern state of Sergipe, was originally supposed to last 72 hours. As it turned out, a counter-ruling ended the WhatsApp freeze after just one day later.

But during the fateful Monday, Camila was feeling a bit lost in the WhatsApp-less wilderness. The call she makes to her mother won't go through. "My brother and I both live here in São Paulo," she says. "My mother must be worried right now."

Camila doesn't use the app just to exchange messages with her mother. It's also how she gets her office schedule and work instructions. But with Monday's ban, most people had to go back to the origins of cellphones â€" making actual calls â€" and temporarily forget about WhatsApp's text or voice messages, its two blue ticks and the wait for the recipient to have the compassion to reply.

It may seem strange, outdated even, but calling people is actually pretty common still, even with smartphones. A poll carried out by Datafolha last June suggested that 22% of Brazilian smartphone owners use their devices to call more than anything else, making it the second biggest group behind the 27% who use it mostly for social networking. Messaging was the most common usage for just 18%. But the results also showed generational differences. For those aged between 16 and 24, only 17% used their phones mostly for calling, behind social networking and messaging.

Still, there's no denying that habits have changed over the past few years. Like Camila Lima, businessman Daniel Linger, 34, does much of his communicating via WhatsApp. With the ban in place, he just had to call his fiance the old-fashioned way. But for other things â€" such as organizing his bachelor party â€" Daniel migrates over to another Mark Zuckerberg-owned app: Messenger.

Independent from Facebook since 2014, Messenger seems to have benefited from its cousin's ban. Many interviewees tell us they turned to it as an alternative to WhatsApp. And with 900 million users around the world, Messenger is moving closer to WhatsApp's 1 billion users, including close to 100 million in Brazil alone.

For many poeple, however, WhatsApp is still their platform of choice. Some users say Messenger is slower and has fewer functions. "Audio messages have to be shorter in Messenger, and its interface is more complicated," says IT expert Bruno Cavalcanti, 24, who lives in Dublin but is spending his holidays in São Paulo.

Competition coach Sara Teixeira, 31, says that WhatsApp makes people feel closer to one another, that it's more intimate. "I receive messages until midnight, messages about work, people with questions about work," she says.

Others see the bright side of the ban. José Ronaldo, a 24-year-old bartender, says that people are usually too focused on their smartphones to even hear his explanations about the different drinks. "People are chained to their phones," he says. When it comes to his own cellphone use, José is careful to set limits. He only exchanges messages with two people: his mother, and his boss.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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