Disrupter No. 1 — Russia
Social media was meant to bring the world closer together. Instead, it’s tearing people apart — a phenomenon that Russian tech entrepreneur Pavel Durov is fueling with his Telegram app.
A free speech haven, Telegram reflects the ideals of its enigmatic, globe-trotting 36-year-old creator. Launched in 2013 to compete with WhatsApp and evade Kremlin snooping, Telegram has long been on European governments’ radar as a tool for terrorists’ plotting and propaganda. Lately, it has become increasingly popular for organizing mass movements in the West and its immediate backyard.
Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya posts on Telegram to make announcements, and the banned Belarusian media outlet Nexta Live uses the app to post reports of police brutality to its 1.7 million subscribers. Telegram is also how German QAnon conspiracy theorists and anti-mask protesters organize marches in Berlin. As platforms like Facebook and Twitter try to crack down on misinformation and incitements to violence, Telegram has become the new destination for much of this material.
Durov cut his libertarian teeth feuding with the Kremlin over VKontacte, a Facebook clone he created in 2006. After repeatedly refusing to shut down opposition blogs — responding to one government demand by tweeting a photo of a dog sticking its tongue out — he lost control of VKontacte and fled the country (obtaining a passport from St. Kitts and Nevis) in 2014.
Telegram can be used for one-on-one messages, but it also has channels for broad reach — anonymously, if desired. That’s handy for independent journalists, pro-democracy protesters — and propagandists. Telegram hit 400 million active users in April, compared with 2 billion for Facebook-owned WhatsApp. But it’s growing fast beyond its Russian- and Arabic-speaking base, especially among right-wing movements that feel targeted by mainstream platforms’ crackdowns on hate speech.
Take the anti-Islam, far-right founder of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson. Over the past few years, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram have shut down his accounts for promoting violence. But he’s still going strong on Telegram, where he has 35,000 followers and is organizing protests against coronavirus regulations.
Durov isn’t averse to silencing views he deems odious — there’s a whole channel devoted to tracking down ISIS accounts for deletion. But he is essentially the judge, jury and executioner. For all his middle-finger displays to Putin, critics accuse him of acquiescing to the demands of authoritarians in Iran and Turkey who want to keep tabs on dissidents.
The potential for Telegram’s lasting impact may become clear in 2021, when the European Court of Human Rights is expected to move forward on Durov’s 2018 appeal of a Russian order to give authorities a backdoor to the app’s encrypted messages. The case could ultimately influence how other governments weigh the balance of national security versus digital privacy.
On a practical level, however, Durov has already won the fight: Over the summer, Moscow basically gave up after Durov repeatedly outmaneuvered efforts to shut the app down. Other governments have also struggled to figure out how to deal with Telegram. The fact that the app doesn’t make any money or collect users’ data makes it much harder to regulate.
Of course, the lack of revenue calls into question how much longer Durov’s personal fortune can keep the platform afloat. Western watchdogs may not be able to do much to Telegram directly, but they do have some leverage, via Apple and Google, which could cut the app from their app stores. In October, Apple threatened to do just that, unless he removed posts from Belarusian activists revealing the home addresses of police. Durov complied, but suggested those channels would still be visible on other platforms, and followed up by mocking sagging iPhone sales on his personal Telegram channel.