Hannah Johnson

Managing Director, London

February 1, 2019

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What does the merger of messaging services mean at a public and policy level?

The New York Times recently revealed that there are plans to merge the messaging services of Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp by, at the latest, early next year. This will mean that anyone using any of the services can message anyone using another – bringing together 2.6 billion users across the three platforms.

What are the implications? And how can charities, brands, and governments get ahead of these changes?

The potential drawbacks

Greater encryption without greater regulation: End to end encryption, which has been native in Whatsapp from the start, will now apparently be part of the Instagram and Facebook messaging systems, too. This is something that many would applaud. Plenty of users will feel more confident sharing sharing photos and personal information  across these services. You might even see banking start to integrate safely and securely across these platforms.

However, in the UK, Ofcom has already said that 2019 will see it take a much tougher stance on social media, with aims to tackle terrorism, violence, and child abuse. This move could potentially increase the amount of information that moves into the realm of ‘dark social’ – i.e. messaging and chat services where content cannot be policed, raising the risk of these problems getting worse. In the past five years in the UK, there was an increase of 700% in child abuse images being referred to the National Crime Agency.

A more powerful tool for cyberbullies? If the changes allow messages to travel between the services, as reported today, this may once again raise the issue of cyberbullying and what these networks are doing to combat it. With Facebook often cited as the number one network for cyberbullying, vulnerable individuals or those seeking to ignore or shut down abusive messages may find it harder to do so as bullies can reach victims over multiple networks.

Self-policing versus the police: Freedom of speech has always been a grey area on social media – but at least when things are discussed publicly, there’s an element of self-policing and regulation from the wider community. But when more content becomes private or moves into the ‘dark social’ space, users can end up voicing their opinions in an entirely supportive bubble, with no other opinions present – a toxic environment.

With regard to policing, authorities cannot easily access information that is in the realm of ‘dark social’ (such as encrypted services like WhatsApp – as was the case with the London terror attacks). With these services coming together, certain individuals may see this as a chance to potentially further undermine and ‘escape’ authorities.

It’s been 15 years and we’re still no closer to social networks accepting responsibility for what happens on their sites. Making sure networks are safe overall is a contentious issue, with no progress being made. Networks feel this should sit with governments and governments feel this should be done with the co-operation of networks (when they choose to show up). But, with such a merge on the horizon, this could present the perfect opportunity for governments to apply the pressure.

Limited monitoring and attribution. Social media continues to be a bit of a mystery for marketers and brands who want to use the channels to support customers and report on campaign activity. With the three top messaging apps outside of Twitter set to become encrypted (and, who knows, Twitter may even choose to follow suit), this increases the barriers for brands. It makes it harder for companies to understand how customers are using these channels and talking about their products, and for them to provide more relevant and meaningful content to audiences.

Potential further brand damage for Facebook: Facebook has had a turbulent year for user privacy, fake news, and more. This planned integration may cause further problems down the line. Additionally, it may not help repair user trust in the platform(s). Mark Zuckerberg initially said (when the services were acquired) that he would leave both Instagram and WhatsApp to operate independently, but this has not happened. Five years down the line, the integration has started. In another five (or fewer), will we see the services merge completely?

But what about the opportunity?

Better service for customers: Retail and banking brands may welcome this news with open arms. WhatsApp’s encryption means customers can share sensitive information securely. Barclays has already been testing a WhatsApp Banking service in Africa. This merger may allow such initiatives to scale hugely across the three platforms. Imagine no more waiting on hold or talking to customer service centres – everything taken care of via messenger services.

The ability to allow messages to travel across the networks could also alleviate problems for customer service teams combatting claims from the same customer with different names across different social platforms, or flitting between Instagram and Facebook to seek advice or make a complaint. This will now be more seamless for the user and more efficient for the customer service teams aiming to help and provide resolutions.

A chance for more 1-2-1 content innovation: Facebook, as the most established messaging service, has been paving the way for organisations to think more creatively about content marketing. From Whole Foods allowing individuals to find recipes from emojis to UNICEF’s U Report encouraging younger supporters (aged 13 and up) to have their say on issues they have care about – integration could allow such services to be extended to Instagram and Whatsapp also allowing the opportunity for greater reach and engagement.

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