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Lidiane Leite’s use of WhatsApp to remotely run her city may not have seemed unusual in Brazil. The country, and many others in South America and South Asia, has embraced the free-to-download app as a vital communication tool.Handout

When Lidiane Leite, 25, was elected mayor of her hometown of Bom Jardim, a city of 40,000 in Brazil's northeast, nearly three years ago, she was widely understood to be a stand-in for her then-boyfriend. He is a millionaire cattle farmer who couldn't run for office himself because of criminal convictions. So Ms. Leite won the mayoral job, but she wasn't actually interested in living in Bom Jardim, which is 200 kilometres from the nearest mall and has nary a nightclub to its name. She made her boyfriend the "secretary for political affairs," and decamped back to the state capital, 270 kilometres away.

But there was a certain number of mayoral obligations she could not avoid – and for those, she had WhatsApp.

When Ms. Leite disappeared earlier this month, after state prosecutors announced she was being investigated for siphoning off millions of dollars in city funds, it made headlines here: Her alleged graft, using the school lunch budget to fund champagne parties and water-skiing trips she Instagrammed, was bold.

But using the mobile messaging application WhatsApp to run a city? That made a certain kind of sense, in Brazil.

When Facebook bought the company in October, 2014, for a cool $22-billion, the acquisition caused a lot of crinkled brows in North America, where WhatsApp was virtually unknown.

But it was already a vital communication tool in much of South Asia and South America – a bare-bones, super-easy-to-use app for sending text and voice messages, plus pictures and video, that consumes minimal data, making it ideal for markets with many low-income users, or high telecom prices. (Brazil has both.)

WhatsApp has no ads, and users don't pay a per-message fee as they do with a text message. It's a free download for the first year, and $1 a year after that. Europeans have also embraced it, but Canadians and Americans have been much slower to fall in love with the service.

WhatsApp declined to answer questions from The Globe and Mail about usage in Brazil, but in 2014 the company said the country had the second-largest share of users (today, more than 900 million worldwide).

The app can be found on more than 80 per cent of the 154 million smartphones in Brazil, according to research by communications company Acision last year.

Through the Portuguese pronunciation of the name, Brazilians have effectively retitled the app – it's known as zapzap here – and "to zap" is now a ubiquitous verb. Zapping shaved the amount of time Brazilians spent calling people on their phones to 111 minutes a month from 132 minutes, between 2014 and 2015, according to research by Teleco, a consulting firm.

Today, Brazilians have WhatsApp groups (in which messages are shared simultaneously to a select group of people) for their families, their children's school classes and their sports teams. They WhatsApp pictures of their kid's rash to the pediatrician, they create a group to plan a surprise party, they let the boss know they're running late. They zap friends from fitting rooms in stores to ask if a potential new pair of jeans make their bums look big (if yes, then buy).

But increasingly the app also has business applications: Prosecutors investigating the giant Lava Jato political graft scandal, for example, have thousands upon thousands of WhatsApp messages between principals in the case as evidence for potential trials. Members of Congress have a WhatsApp group to discuss how they will vote. Every newspaper has a WhatsApp account for news tip. Drug dealers in Rio use it to organize their staff.

WhatsApp recently introduced a free calling service, which works on the user's data plan but is far cheaper than carrier-based voice calling.

Predictably, Brazil's telecommunications companies are not enthused. Amos Genish, president of Vivo, the largest carrier on the market, said in a presentation last month that WhatsApp is "pure piracy." He called it "a provider without a licence."

"They use our [telephone] numbers to send free messages," Mr. Genish complained, noting that Vivo pays a fee per active number.

The telco majors are rumoured to be preparing a lobby effort aimed at persuading government to treat WhatsApp as a carrier.

The app is eating into other telecom markets on the continent, as well; it is widely used in Mexico and most other Latin American countries. Colombia's Foreign Minister uses it to co-ordinate diplomatic events, for example, and "coyotes" who move migrants through Central America use it, too.

But in Bom Jardim, Rafael Goncalves, communications chief for the city council, described a situation where, even in the Brazilian context, the town's erstwhile mayor took WhatsApp use to an extreme.

"Every time I accessed WhatsApp, she was online: Every single time," he said in a telephone interview.

(The app's screen indicates at the top when the person you are messaging is online, actively using it or else the time they were last seen, and handily shows with two tiny blue check marks when a message you sent has been read or played.)

"Whenever there was a crime or something, before I even got the crime scene, she would have already sent me a picture of it," Mr. Goncalves said of his former boss. "The police would WhatsApp a message, and she would forward it to me. She was on this app 24 hours a day."

Mr. Goncalves said a friend awoke him with the news on the Sunday morning when the mayor took flight. "I couldn't believe it. What's happening to my city? I got up, brushed my teeth and then I remembered, she never leaves WhatsApp."

So he checked, toothbrush still in mouth. "It was 7:50 a.m., I remember. Her last appearance online was listed at 7:44 a.m. and that's how it has stayed to this day. … Then we knew, it was true, she had run away."

With a report from Manuela Andreoni

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