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Telegram, Signal, and how the Insurrectionists communicate


There’s a lot of hand-wringing in national security circles over two new apps, Signal and Telegram. They both utilize so-called end-to-end encryption, which means (explains the New York Times) that “no one but the sender and receiver can read its contents.”

Security professionals (Homeland Security, the F.B.I., Secret Service and so on) see at least one advantage in older social media platforms, like Facebook, Reddit and Twitter: they were public. It wasn’t easy for posters to shield their comments from scrutinizing eyes. When Qanon and the Proud Boys planned their insurrection on social media sites, everybody knew exactly what to expect (which makes the lack of preparedness of law enforcement on Jan. 6 all the more egregious).

The rightwing Trump radicals now know (if they didn’t know before) that Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) and similar sites are not safe places for them to talk. For a while, they flocked to Parler, but that social network has now been effectively neutralized, after being banned by Amazon and Apple from their app stores.

Hence the rise of Signal and Telegram. And that rise has been rapid and phenomenal. In the last week alone, Telegram has become “the second most downloaded app in the United States,” with 540,000 U.S. iPhone owners installing Telegram in the six days following last Wednesday’ Insurrection, reports the Moscow Times. (The sourcing is interesting, as Telegram’s co-founder is a Russian, Pavel Durov.) Amazingly, adds the Moscow Times, “Only Signal, another secure messaging app, saw a bigger surge in the past week.” That surge appears to have been prompted after Elon Musk tweeted on his Twitter account the words “Use Signal,” which subsequently was retweeted by Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey.

What’s going on here? A couple things. The reasons why Musk endorsed Signal are not hard to understand, says the online media site, CNET. Let’s ignore his dislike of Facebook, which is common knowledge. The real reason, says CNET, is because “Signal…has a history of fighting any entity that asks for your data, and adds features to further anonymize you where possible.” Musk is a privacy freak, which is why he banned SpaceX employees from using ZOOM for video conferencing, after it was revealed that ZOOM suffered from numerous security problems.

In this sense, what Elon Musk has in common with the rightwing Insurrectionists is an insatiable desire for absolute, uninvadable online privacy. Which poses questions that are especially important at this moment in history. We all want online privacy. Nobody wants to be hacked, or overheard, or have their data shared with third parties. One problem with existing social media, obviously, is that mega-companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter make money by selling our data to third parties. With that income stream, these companies would cease to exist.

Telegram and Signal, by contrast, do not share data, nor do they sell ads. How, then, do they make money? Here’s what Telegram says on its public blog: “We believe in fast and secure messaging that is also 100% free. Our founder and CEO Pavel Durov, who financed Telegram throughout most of its history, has outlined a strategy to make Telegram sustainable. While Telegram will introduce monetization in 2021 to pay for the infrastructure and developer salaries, making profits will never be an end-goal for us.”

Durov further addressed the issue of a business model on his personal Telegram “channel”: After conceding that, once his personal investment in Telegram ends, Telegram will require “at least a few hundred million dollars per year to keep going,” Durov vows that “We are not going to sell the company.” The needed income, he says, rather vaguely, will be obtained in “a non-intrusive way…Most users will hardly notice any change.” Durov insists he will continue Telegram’s policy of no ads “in private 1-to-1 chats.” But—and it’s a big “but”–Dirov says Telegram will start selling ads on “public one-to-many channels.”

Since it is Telegram’s (and Signal’s) “one-to-many channels” that are the way rightwing Insurrectionists communicate (you can hardly plan a revolution one-to-one), I wonder how long it will be before the people who are fleeing Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, etc. will start fleeing Telegram and Signal. It’s beginning to look like the digital equivalent of a Cold War-style arms race: users flock to new, free, non-commercial sites to communicate. Those new, free sites, which can continue only by making money, will gradually erode the purity that attracted people to them in the first place by becoming commercial, leading those people to seek someplace more amenable. It’s whack-a-mole on the Internet. Besides, isn’t it just a matter of time before federal authorities find ways to bust into Telegram and Signal? They seem eager now to find and break up the Trump thugs–and in a Biden administration, I should think law enforcement will double their efforts.

The good news is that this splintering of communications platforms will make it much harder for militant radicals to find a common public square in which to get their acts together. They simply will be unable to plan, plot and organize their activities efficiently, on a mass basis. That may be the first step toward, if not getting rid of them, then at least making them nuisances rather than threats. The technology that helped spawn them, ironically, may help to bring them down.

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