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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 — 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 — the popular messaging service and Camila's go-to means of communicaiton — 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 — making actual calls — 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It may seem strange, outdated even, but calling people is actually pretty common still, even with smartphones.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 — such as organizing his bachelor party — 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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Ideas

Joshimath, The Sinking Indian City Has Also Become A Hotbed Of Government Censorship

The Indian authorities' decision to hide factual reports on the land subsidence in Joshimath only furthers a sense of paranoia.

Photo of people standing next to a cracked road in Joshimath, India

Cracked road in Joshimath

@IndianCongressO via Twitter
Rohan Banerjee*

MUMBAI — Midway through the movie Don’t Look Up (2021), the outspoken PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) is bundled into a car, a bag over her head. The White House, we are told, wants her “off the grid”. She is taken to a warehouse – the sort of place where CIA and FBI agents seem to spend an inordinate amount of time in Hollywood movies – and charged with violating national security secrets.

The Hobson’s choice offered to her is to either face prosecution or suspend “all public media appearances and incendiary language relating to Comet Dibiasky”, an interstellar object on a collision course with earth. Exasperated, she acquiesces to the gag order.

Don’t Look Upis a satirical take on the collective apathy towards climate change; only, the slow burn of fossil fuel is replaced by the more imminent threat of a comet crashing into our planet. As a couple of scientists try to warn humanity about its potential extinction, they discover a media, an administration, and indeed, a society that is not just unwilling to face the truth but would even deny it.

This premise and the caricatured characters border on the farcical, with plot devices designed to produce absurd scenarios that would be inconceivable in the real world we inhabit. After all, would any government dealing with a natural disaster, issue an edict prohibiting researchers and scientists from talking about the event? Surely not. Right?

On January 11, the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC), one of the centers of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), issued a preliminary report on the land subsidence issue occurring in Joshimath, the mountainside city in the Himalayas.

The word ‘subsidence’ entered the public lexicon at the turn of the year as disturbing images of cracked roads and tilted buildings began to emanate from Joshimath.

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