In 2018, Brian Acton, the billionaire WhatsApp cofounder, committed several fateful actions. He had quit Facebook a few months earlier, and in March, he took his rift with the company public by firing off an angry tweetâ€”â€œIt is time. #deleteFacebookâ€�â€”just as the company that had bought his app descended into scandal over its data-sharing practices and status as a hotbed for conservative misinformation. Nearly at the same time, Acton was funneling $50 million into a new nonprofit, the Signal Foundation, naming himself its executive chairman. The groupâ€™s overriding goal: Finance a three-year-old app called Signal, which allowed users to send end-to-end encrypted messages.
Signal offered easy communication and secure, total anonymity. With the new funding, it wouldnâ€™t need to cave to commercial interests and sell ads, something Acton hated about Facebook. Grandly, he envisioned Signal making â€œprivate communication accessible and ubiquitous,â€� heÂ toldÂ Forbes in 2018, and the app has largely lived up to his expectations. It is especially valued among journalists and activists like the ones who planned the Black Lives Matter protests. But in an ironic twist, the app is poised to become a new digital haven for conservativesâ€”just as Facebook before it. These right-wing users are drawn to it for the same reasons BLM organizers liked it: It offers the ability to plan and communicate en masse without worrying about the app exerting content-moderation policies or aiding authorities pursuing charges against them. Signal doesnâ€™t appear to have any such policies and doesnâ€™t have access to usersâ€™ messages, theoretically making it impossible to cooperate with a police investigation.
â€œThe use of Signal and Telegram is really dangerous. They appear to be at this moment welcoming hateful users whoâ€™ve been kicked off other platforms or been made to feel unwelcome on other platforms,â€� says Harry Fernandez, a director at Change the Terms, a nonprofit tracking online hate speech. â€œAnd itâ€™s dangerous that they donâ€™t appear to have any infrastructure in place to police these platforms.â€� Its encryption abilities make it hard to know precisely whatâ€™s actively being discussed there, and Acton wouldnâ€™t return requests to comment for this story. But theÂ New York TimesÂ reports the extremist Boogaloo Boys group, for one, have already set up shop there.
The flight to Signal comes as many conservatives feel under attack online. Twitter and Facebook have banned President Trump after he used those sites to help incite the Jan. 6 riot, and the sites have taken other measures to tamp down right-wing misinformation. Parler, a smaller but popular conservative social media app, had its servers shut down by Amazon
Neither is a true replacement for Twitter or Facebook. They rely on private messages, not the massive, open networks of the bigger, mainstream social media sites. Yet they do offer something Facebook and Twitter donâ€™t: encrypted anonymity and no content policingâ€”useful features to say, plan a disruptive, large-scale rally away from the eyes of authorities.
The two apps have topped Appleâ€™s
Both Signal and Telegram attributed the recent download surge to new users fleeing WhatsApp, a chief competitor that recently made changes to its privacy settings. This undoubtedly drew in some users but is, at most, only part of the story. â€œIâ€™m really skeptical,â€� says Will Partin, an analyst at Data & Society, an internet research outfit who monitors right-wing hate speech online. He sees a â€œPR crisisâ€� brewing for the two apps as conservative groups take hold thereâ€”and the companies say nothing publicly about the influx. Or about intentions to turn away the new users.
â€œTelegram has become the largest refugee for those seeking a communication platform committed to privacy and security,â€� Durov wrote in a Telegram post trumpeting the user influx. â€œWe take this responsibility very seriously. We wonâ€™t let you down.â€�
Signal first launched in 2014, created by a security researcher named Moxie Marlinspike. (Thatâ€™s a pseudonymâ€”his real name is unknown.) Its nearly impenetrable encryption technology quickly won the plaudits of a varied groupâ€”from the likes of billionaire Jack Dorsey, who incorporated a portion of its encryption software to Twitter, to Edward Snowden, who has said he uses Signal every single day.Â
Acton was a former Yahoo software engineer who left in a huff over the companyâ€™s relentless focus on moneymaking. (â€œDealing with ads is depressing,â€�Â he told Forbes in 2014. â€œYou donâ€™t make anyoneâ€™s life better by making advertisements work better.â€�) He and fellow Yahoo employee Jan Koum left the business in 2008 and took a year off, partly for a South American vacation, partly to play a lot of ultimate Frisbee. They later applied and were rejected from jobs at Facebook before the pair founded WhatsApp in 2009. Three years later, they sold the app to the company that had once turned them away, inking a $22 billion deal with Facebook. While at Facebook, a mutual friend reportedly introduced Marlinspike and Acton. The two met, liked each other and worked to add some of Signalâ€™s encryption software to WhatsApp.
When Acton announced his decision to form the Signal Foundation, heÂ wrote out an effusive blog post, loftily describing Signalâ€™s goal as â€œto act in the public interest and making a meaningful contribution to society by building sustainable technology that respects users.â€� In Actonâ€™s mind, the app would be used as it was this summer, firmly in the hands of BLM protesters who found it a useful organizing tool. â€œAny time there is some form of unrest or a contentious election, there seems to be an opportunity for us to build our audience,â€� ActonÂ toldÂ Time in September. â€œItâ€™s a little bit bittersweet, because a lot of times our spikes come from bad events. Itâ€™s, like, woohoo, weâ€™re doing greatâ€”but the worldâ€™s on fire.â€�
From another part of the world often engulfed in turmoil came Durov and Telegram. As can often happen in the dim, overlapping worlds of Russian business and politics, Durovâ€™s origin story is somewhat hazy. His first company was VKontakte, a Facebook-esque social network he began in 2006. About five years later, he first ran afoul of the Russian government when he refused to silence opposition politicians on VKontakte,Â according to the Washington Post. Shortly afterward, he fled Russia shortly after police investigated him over a hit-and-run accident, an event he has since described as politically motivated.
Durov envisioned Telegram as the perfect tool for people like those opposition politicians, who wanted to foment change and avoid getting caught doing it. Almost immediately after Telegram launched in 2013, less noble-minded groups recognized its potential, too, and Durov spent part of the decade trying to dislodge ISIS from the platform. (A spokesman for Durov wouldnâ€™t return a request for comment for this story.)
Both Signal and Telegram offer one-on-one messaging and group messages, and their encryption technology makes it difficult to track the true extent of any extremist conversations. And both make it possible to join a group through a URL, but Telegram URL invites are much more commonly distributed on the Web than ones from Signal, which added the feature only last year.Â
Since the conservative social media app Parler went down over the weekend, a widely shared Telegram group called Parler Lifeboat has emerged. It has 16,000 members and has established itself as a space to venerate President Trump and the Jan. 6 attempted coup, â€œan awesome event,â€� as one rhapsodic anonymous user described it on Monday night. Parler Lifeboaters swap conspiracy theories, complain about antifa and have celebrated their exodus from Twitter, which they like to refer to as â€œTwatter.â€� Alongside Parler Lifeboat is a Telegram group run by the alt-right Proud Boys (almost 31,000 followers), and its fetid content is much the same.Â
President Trump has long maintained a public presence on Telegram through an openly accessible group page, and he has continued posting on Telegram after his expulsions from Facebook and Twitter. While Telegram does offer the president some means of unfettered communication, he finds himself talking only to a diminutive audience, some 500,000 followers. On Twitter and Facebook collectively, he had over 100 million.
Nonetheless, Trump very much remains Trump. He posted new comments to Telegram Tuesday evening, using those remarks to damn companies like Facebook and Twitter. â€œI think that big tech is doing a horrible thing . . . to our country,â€� he wrote. â€œBut thereâ€™s always a counter move.â€�
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