The Economist explains
TWO LITTLE-KNOWN messaging apps have dominated the Apple and Google app stores recently: Telegram and Signal. In the week beginning December 28th, Signal was downloaded 246,000 times. The week after it hit 8.8m. On January 12th Telegram bragged that it had surpassed 500m active users, with 25m signing up from around the world in the previous three days. Why have Signal and Telegram seen spikes whereas WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging behemoth used by nearly 3bn people, has not?
The short answer is: concerns over privacy. Even though all three services promise to keep users’ communications secure and to protect their privacy, the fact that WhatsApp is owned by Facebook makes some suspicious of it. Signal is indeed relatively secure, but Telegram might not quite live up to its sales pitch. It does not automatically enable the end-to-end encryption that would ensure that only the sender and receiver may read messages. Some security experts have raised questions about its encryption methods even when the user has enabled them. But Telegram and Signal both have origin stories that help them sell the idea of total privacy. Telegram was founded by Pavel Durov, the founder of a popular Russian social network called VK, after he fell foul of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, and fled the country. Signal is a not-for-profit created by Moxie Marlinspike, the pseudonym of a well-known coder and cryptographer, with the aim of making encrypted communication straightforward enough for anyone to use it.
A recent spat between Apple and Facebook has made users more interested in guarding their online privacy. In December Apple introduced labels showing what data apps collected. iPhone users became aware of how much WhatsApp knew about them. After WhatsApp complained about this, Apple revealed that its rival iMessage service collects a fraction of the data that WhatsApp does. Then, on January 4th, WhatsApp started notifying users that they would have to agree to new terms and conditions to continue to use the service. The point of the change was to allow users to interact with businesses through WhatsApp, since facilitating these conversations will in some cases require people’s data to be shared with Facebook (though not in Europe, where data-protection laws prevent such things). This angered many users, who took WhatsApp to be saying that it would start sharing more data in general with its parent company. Some users looked for an alternative. A timely tweet of “Use Signal” from Elon Musk, a tech entrepreneur with more than 40m followers, no doubt helped boost its profile.
The uproar over WhatsApp’s new terms is in part the result of a growing political backlash against big tech. Facebook’s and Twitter’s decisions to remove a number of accounts primarily belonging to figures on the right, such as Donald Trump, America’s former president, turned a long-standing right-wing gripe about political bias in Silicon Valley into a full-blown backlash. And when Parler, a Twitter-copycat with many right-wing users, was removed from Amazon Web Services’ servers, taking it offline until it found a different host, a massive number of users sought out alternative platforms, especially Telegram.
The rise of these platforms may be a reflection of people’s increasing interest in remaining anonymous online, or perhaps merely of their increasing realisation that they rarely are. But the privacy that these platforms offer is double-edged. On the one hand, it provides a powerful tool for those who live under oppressive regimes, allowing them to communicate and organise far from prying eyes. Signal is a popular way for dissidents to communicate the world over. Telegram counts Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, among its fans. And even those who do not live under such regimes have good reasons to want to communicate away from corporate view.
On the other hand, that same lack of oversight has made Telegram a home for neo-Nazis, conspiracy theorists and jihadists. Extremists do not use platforms just to send private messages, but also to broadcast propaganda on public channels and to win new recruits. Policies against threatening violence are often patchily enforced in these channels. Telegram has recently deleted a number of extreme-right channels. But this is notable only because of how rare it is. Signal has less of a reputation for harbouring extremism, but because of its encryption policies it lacks the power to moderate what happens in its groups.There may be some cause for optimism—after a slow start Telegram has recently shown a more sustained interest in disrupting jihadist channels of communication. And forcing extremists onto smaller platforms is no bad thing. A smaller platform means a smaller potential audience. Forcing extremists to recruit using these platforms may well highlight their extremism to those they are trying to attract.