SAO PAULO, Brazil — When Lazaro Rutino needs a break from hauling beef across Brazil in his truck, he swipes on his phone and is instantly connected to dozens of other truckers. Rutino, 59, is a member of eight trucker groups on WhatsApp, the messaging service that has become a staple for Brazilians of all walks of life.
“It’s a relief from the daily loneliness,” said Rutino, 59, who spends more than a month at a time away from his wife and three children. Rutino uses WhatsApp to secure work, learn about traffic jams and avoid dangerous stretches of highway. But recently, along with thousands of other truckers, he also used it to participate in a 10-day strike that crippled Latin America’s largest economy.
Disparate bands of truckers turned to the messaging app to organize thousands of drivers in the largest and most effective truckers strike in the nation’s history. In two weeks, they squeezed $2.5 billion in concessions from Brazil’s president, prompted the resignation of the CEO of Petrobras, the state-controlled oil giant, and won the support of the majority of the country.
“We tried to do this many times before WhatsApp, but it has never been so successful,” said Rutino, who has been driving trucks for 40 years.
Nearly two-thirds of Brazil’s 200 million people use WhatsApp to share memes, set up meetings and, increasingly, to vent about politics. Now, the messaging app is helping Brazilians undermine established power structures, injecting a level of unpredictability and radicalization into a country beset by economic and political crises.
WhatsApp is particularly suited to organized movements. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, which often provide information to wider audiences, WhatsApp requires users to be invited to participate in groups, which leads to increased intimacy and secrecy, according to researchers. The platform’s voice messaging and photo sharing options enable users of varied educational backgrounds to take part in discussions. And it is free. Disgruntled Uber drivers, feminists and hard-line conservatives here use the app to share ideas and plan get-togethers.
In the United States and France, nontraditional candidates have been winning elections. In Brazil, WhatsApp is helping outsiders gain power by replacing enfeebled traditional brokers such as unions.
The truckers strike began in mid-May. Fed up with rising fuel costs and fruitless negotiations with Brazil’s government, thousands of drivers agreed to halt their trips and park their trucks along highways, halting deliveries of goods. Within days, gas stations ran dry, supermarkets began rationing fruit and airports started to cancel flights for lack of fuel.
Desperate to get the economy moving again, President Michel Temer met with leaders of eight unions. They quickly struck a deal to temporarily clear the highways in return for temporary cuts to fuel prices. But most truckers rejected the deal.
Meanwhile, the truckers used WhatsApp to win the support of their fellow citizens….