Why the Mexican presidential favorite gives out his WhatsApp number

Last Monday, Mexican Foreign Secretary and presidential favorite Marcelo Ebrard made a bold move to reach out to potential voters: He tweeted what he said was his WhatsApp number to his more than 2 million followers. .

In less than 48 hours, his WhatsApp account, created through a WhatsApp Business number, received nearly a million messages, Daniel Sibaja, a congressman with close ties to Ebrard who appears to be running some of his digital campaign efforts unofficially. . “We are overwhelmed by the number of text messages we receive. It’s one every 40 seconds,” he said. Rest of the world.

Still, the campaign did its best to keep up. For some users, Ebrard’s response was surprisingly quick. “@m_ebrard replied faster than my buddy,” one user tweeted. Rest of the world messaged and received a voice note from Ebrard himself about two hours later. Subsequent messages from five other phones were sent in the following days, but none had received a response at the time of publication.

Politicians handing a direct line of communication to the people who manage their communication channels is a common political strategy. Barack Obama shared a phone number during the 2020 Trump-Biden election campaign to encourage people to express how they plan to vote, but did not personally respond to every text; he used an app called Community that sent pre-recorded messages.

This type of automated campaigning has become increasingly sophisticated with the creation of WhatsApp-based networking software, like that seen in Colombia, which helped lead an anti-establishment candidate to the second round of presidential elections. Ebrard’s WhatsApp strategy is relatively low-tech, which calls into question whether the intention is to communicate with his supporters or to collect large amounts of data that will help him in recruitment and activism on the ground when the campaign will begin in earnest.

Rather than automating responses or using chatbots, Sibaja said the WhatsApp account is run by a team of 30 people manually reading the sea of ​​messages. Ebrard doesn’t respond to everyone, but when he does, it’s via a voice note – some of which, Rest of the world was able to confirm, are sent en masse.

WhatsApp is the most popular social media platform in the country after Facebook and is used by most Mexicans. The Ebrard team wants to take advantage of this high penetration by manually profiling users based on what their texts suggest their interests. The goal is to use this WhatsApp channel to have clearly segmented audiences that Ebrard can reach in silos when his campaign officially begins.

“With WhatsApp, you are not breaking election law.”

Mexico’s presidential election is still two years away, and electoral law prohibits candidates from campaigning that far. Using WhatsApp, observers say, is a way around this rule. One-on-one conversations on a messaging app, even if conducted on a large scale, are not considered political propaganda by Mexican election officials unless voters are actively urged to vote for them. a certain candidate.

“With WhatsApp you are not breaking election law,” Sibaja said. Rafael Morales, head of political risk and analytics at Aserta, a public affairs firm in Mexico City, agreed. “Elections law is not binding on these types of messaging apps,” he said. Rest of the world. “You can send 500,000 or 800,000 messages, segmented by age or time of week, and no one can log the transactions.”

However, the use of other social media platforms, such as Instagram, has been subject to sanctions by the Mexican electoral authority. Mexico’s National Electoral Institute has fined Samuel García, the current governor of Nuevo León state, and his political party after deciding that his influential wife had made in-kind donations, specifically his 1 300 Instagram stories that were worth around $1.4 million. in social media support.

Other observers worried about the ethical implications of such unregulated communication. “Collecting so much digital information, especially when it comes to citizens’ personal phone numbers, is a big responsibility,” said Marcelo García Almaguer, an expert in political digital communication. Rest of the world.

Sibaja says Ebrard’s team reads all messages they receive and filters them by issue and geography. Ebrard then takes about 30 or 40 minutes each day to respond personally, Sibaja said, insisting that “the foreign minister will always respond.” But analysts, like Leonardo Núñez González, a political analyst at CIDE, a Mexican public university, have doubts. “It is virtually impossible for Ebrard to respond personally to every message. To imply that this is true is a lie.

Eventually, Sibaja says Ebrard plans to expand the operation by recruiting 50,000 volunteers in the coming months — largely coming through the current WhatsApp reader — who will tentatively track the growing number of messages. A well-designed bot could read, filter and delete millions of messages in a fraction of the time and effort that even a team of 50,000 people could, Morales suggested. “I don’t see the need to have so many people,” he said.

Nevertheless, Morales suspects that “the purpose behind this is not that he responds personally” to everyone who writes to him. Success will likely come in the form of a Mexico-wide segmented data pool ready for use when on-the-road campaigns become legal.

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