Last Monday, Mexico’s foreign secretary and presidential frontrunner, Marcelo Ebrard, made a bold move to reach 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, set up through a WhatsApp Business number, received almost one million messages, according to Daniel Sibaja, a congressman who is closely linked to Ebrard and seems to be unofficially running some of his digital campaigning efforts. “We are overwhelmed by the number of texts we’re getting. It’s one every 40 seconds,” he told Rest of World

Still, the campaign did its best to keep up. For some users, Ebrard’s response has been unexpectedly swift. One user tweeted, “@m_ebrard replied faster than my boyfriend.” Rest of World sent a message and received a voice note from Ebrard himself roughly two hours later. Subsequent messages from five other phones were sent in the following days, but none of them had received an answer at the time of publication.

Politicians handing over a direct line of communication to the people running their comms channels is a common political strategy. Barack Obama shared a phone number during the Trump-Biden election campaign in 2020, to encourage people to voice how they planned to vote, but didn’t respond to each text personally; he used an app called Community that sent out prerecorded messages.

This sort of automated campaign has become increasingly sophisticated with the creation of WhatsApp-based networking software, like the one seen in Colombia, which helped take an anti-establishment candidate to the presidential runoffs. Ebrard’s WhatsApp strategy is comparatively low-tech, bringing into question whether the intention is to communicate with his supporters or to collect large amounts of data that will aid him in recruitment and on-the-ground activism when campaigning starts in earnest.

Sibaja said that the WhatsApp account is being run by a team of 30 people manually reading through the sea of messages and that automated responses and chatbots are not used to reply. Ebrard doesn’t answer every single message, but when he does, it’s via voice notes — some of which, Rest of World was able to confirm, are sent en masse.

WhatsApp is the country’s most popular social media platform after Facebook and is used by most Mexicans. Ebrard’s team wants to leverage this high penetration by manually profiling users according to what their texts suggest their interests are. The goal is to use this WhatsApp channel to create clearly segmented audiences that Ebrard can reach in silos, when his campaign officially begins.

“With WhatsApp, you’re not breaking electoral law.”

The Mexican presidential election is still two years away, and election law precludes candidates from campaigning this far out. Using WhatsApp, observers say, is a way to circumvent this rule. One-to-one conversations on a messaging app, even if conducted on a massive scale, are not considered political propaganda by Mexico’s electoral authorities, unless voters are actively asked to vote for a certain candidate.

“With WhatsApp, you’re not breaking electoral law,” Sibaja said. Rafael Morales, head of Political Risk and Analysis at Aserta, a public affairs firm in Mexico City, agreed. “Electoral law isn’t binding when it comes to these types of messaging apps,” he told Rest of World. “You can send 500,000 or 800,000 messages, segmented by age or time of the week, and no one can register the operations.”

However, the use of other social media platforms, like Instagram, has been subject to sanctions by Mexico’s electoral authority. Mexico’s National Electoral Institute fined both Samuel García, the current governor of the state of Nuevo León, and his political party after ruling that his influencer wife made in-kind donations — specifically, her 1,300 Instagram stories, which were deemed to be worth about $1.4 million in social media support.

Other observers worried about the ethical implications of such unregulated communication. “Gathering so much digital information, especially when it’s citizens’ personal phone numbers, is a big responsibility,” Marcelo García Almaguer, a political digital communications expert, told Rest of World.

Sibaja says that the Ebrard team reads all the messages it receives and filters them by issue and geography. Ebrard then takes about 30 or 40 minutes every day to answer personally, said Sibaja, insisting that “the foreign secretary will always answer.” But analysts, like Leonardo Núñez González, a political analyst from CIDE, a Mexican public university, have their doubts. “It’s virtually impossible for Ebrard to personally answer each one of the messages. Implying that this is true is a lie.”

Sibaja says that Ebrard plans to eventually scale the operation by recruiting 50,000 volunteers in the coming months — sourced in large part via the current WhatsApp drive — who will tentatively keep up with the increasing number of messages. A well-designed bot could read, filter, and discard millions of messages, using a fraction of the time and and effort a team of even 50,000 people would, Morales suggested. “I don’t see the need for that many people,” he said.

Nevertheless, Morales suspects that “the goal behind this is not that he personally responds” to each and every one of those who write to him. Success will probably come in the form of a Mexico-wide, segmented data pool, ready to be used when on-the-road campaigning becomes legal.