The war messenger, pt. 2

2/2

Part 1 of this article can be found here and in German here.

Most recently, I wrote about how essential Telegram is to Ukraine’s communications and messaging. Today, among other things, I explore the question of why Messenger has taken on such an essential role. There is no one answer to this, but I am making some assumptions here, which are welcome to be added to.

  1. Most importantly, Telegram enables group and broadcasting channels in addition to individual chats, and with unlimited numbers of participants. A decisive advantage over WhatsApp. This has made Telegram the second messenger worldwide for anyone who wants to communicate in large groups (many-to-many) or their own broadcast channels (one-to-many) for business reasons or for their engagement. That leads to point two.
  2. Telegram is the most international. The world map of messengers is clearly divided. WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger dominate in the West, Viber is strong in Eastern Europe, and so on. Above all, however, the boundaries between the apps run along national borders. Thus, a German WhatsApp user cannot find a Greek colleague in this app. He would have to install Viber. Or use Telegram, because that is the most established app, especially if he wants to communicate internationally in large groups or broadcasts.
  1. Rebel Channel’s reputation. The technical possibilities have also contributed to Telegram becoming the messenger of resistance in autocratic countries. In Belarus, Hong Kong and Iran, for example, protests in recent years have been organized primarily on Telegram. Crucial to this is the ability to create anonymous groups and messages and encrypt them. Security agencies have had and continue to have a difficult time responding to these dynamics. So it seems that the anonymity of the users actually holds. By the way, a very interesting study on Telegram and its role in the 2019 Hong Kong protests can be found here.
Hongkong Protest 2019, Studio Incendo, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
  1. The Founder. Pavel Durov, founder of Telegram, also cultivates a rebel image. Even the founding itself is considered an act of resistance against the Russian authorities. Durov was CEO of vKontakte, the “Russian Facebook,” and was supposed to hand over data on Euromaidan supporters. He refused, had to leave – and founded Telegram. When Russian authorities wanted to block Telegram because of its political permissiveness, Durov managed to get around the blocks. Even more, he managed to get the authorities to partially block their own sites. Not only the tech scene had to smile. Durov also claims that Telegram has never been given even one record to a governmental institution. However, this claim has probably been refuted by very recent research by Der Spiegel.

Nevertheless, if you take all this together, Telegram seems to be made for a global second messenger, which serves more and more as a social network and organizing tool and is used less and less as a simple messenger.

Let’s stay with the topic of politics for a moment, because Telegram naturally also has downsides that I don’t want to conceal here. The political and thematic tolerance also favors people and channels that one would rather avoid. From porn to drugs to right-wing agitation, you can find just about anything on Telegram. Especially the anti Corona protests and the right-wing scene in the U.S. became real movements with large reaches, not least on Telegram.

Another example takes us back to Ukraine. Here, of course, Telegram is not only used by Ukrainian authorities and refugees. The Russians also use the app to spread propaganda. It’s the same here in Germany. Some organize their sports club via the blue messenger, others their Nazi sports groups.

Parallels to social networks are also becoming increasingly apparent here. Here, as there, the eternal conflict between free speech and its limits applies. What is needed here is a discourse that seeks and finds compromises. Telegram is also not really up to date when it comes to data protection. Although there is the option to encrypt messages End2End, the user has to actively set this. However, it is not really secure in this case either, since Telegram does not publish any technical details and we thus have to rely on the company’s statements.

Nevertheless, I personally think that it is wrong to demonize Telegram, as it so often happens in Germany. Here I too often encounter the statement “I don’t use Telegram, there are too many Nazis.” How about “I don’t drive cars, people die every day as a result”?

No, both a messenger and a car are tools, technical aids that make our lives easier and offer many possibilities, and so can be used for good or bad. At the moment, at least, Telegram is helping a lot of people in Ukraine to defend themselves, to stay in touch, or just to survive. That is very human.

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