Affordance is Power: Contradictions Between Communicational and Technical Dimensions of WhatsApp’s End-to-End Encryption

WhatsApp’s implementation of end-to-end encryption has been celebrated by many. Intriguingly, though, the invisible affordance was made visible with an individual message to each conversation. In this research, we “properly scrutinize” the roll-out of the affordance in historical perspective inspired by the “platform biography” approach, critically comparing corporate and media documentation with an analysis of the attributes and affordances that refer to the realm of privacy and security with focus on the end-to-end encryption. After pointing the contradictions with evidences found, we conclude that the implementation should be interpreted neither as a plain idealistic saga for user privacy and security by the App’s founders nor as simply a market-oriented approach—though both are clearly components of the company’s motives—but as a strategic move inserted in a: (1) Public Relations guerrilla strategy from WhatsApp Inc. facing national States and respective intelligence agencies or law enforcement institutions, in which context the development and implementation of affordances reveals a (2) power move by corporate digital media to avoid political conflict against vigilante state power and therefore the App’s subsistent vulnerabilities in terms of privacy and security should be read as (3) a tradeoff between commercial massiveness at the expense of technological utopia.