When tens of thousands of people in Belarus decided to protest in the streets, they first of all needed a way to communicate with each other. With internet being widely available, they chose to use the Telegram messaging app.
Telegram is not nearly as well known in Britain, where Skype (owned by Microsoft), Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger (both owned by Facebook) are more popular. But it should be – especially by those of us on the Left.
Telegram was set up in Russia in 2013 by Pavel and Nikolai Durov, tech millionaires who originally created the social network Vkontakte, which competes with Facebook. They and the tools they created put them on a collision course with the Putin regime. Eventually the Telegram developers had to leave Russia and today they run their system from Dubai. But they’re aware that no place is entirely safe, and say on their website that while Dubai is fine for now, they “are ready to relocate again if local regulations change.”
What makes Telegram special and very appealing to civil society groups like the protesters in Belarus is that it’s secure in a way that WhatsApp cannot be. In addition to offering basic online chat, it also does video calls, file sharing, and much more. Telegram groups can have up to 200,000 members. Everything including the voice and video calls is fully encrypted. And Telegram, unlike WhatsApp, works natively on a desktop computer as well as phone and tablet.
The rise of tools like Telegram and its open source rival Signal, which is also very good, came in response to growing threats to free speech online.
Some of those threats are reactions to genuine problems. The rise of hate speech and “fake news”, and foreign (mostly Russian) interference in elections in democratic countries have meant that the social media giants – particularly Facebook and Twitter – are under pressure to censor content.
At the moment, some pretty bad groups are suffering from this, which is a good thing. Social media companies can remove content and close down accounts without a moment’s warning, and with no right of appeal.
Of course we all cheer when Twitter tags one of Trump’s ignorant racist rants as “fake news” or when YouTube (owned by Google) takes down a white supremacist video. None of us are upset when Holocaust-denying Twitter feeds are closed, or Facebook pages defending the KKK are banned.
But the same thing could happen to groups on the Left – for instance, Antifa or Black Lives Matter groups in the US, which are also the targets of media criticism, particularly on the right.
All these platforms – the social networks, the messenger services, videoconferencing tools including Zoom and Skype, mailing list services like MailChimp – are already feeling the pressure to regulate and censor.
Should unions and the Left continue to use those platforms? Of course we should.
But we should be wary of becoming over-dependent on them. And we should be open to change, and trying out alternatives.
For the most popular tools like WhatsApp, there is usually a more secure alternative like Telegram or Signal. An app like Sendy is a far better option (and much cheaper) than MailChimp. Jitsi Meet is a popular open source alternative to Zoom. DuckDuckGo is a search engine that, unlike Google, respects your privacy by default. Firefox, run by a non-profit foundation, is a better choice than Chrome or Safari.
The tools we choose will help determine how effective we are as campaigners and activists. The opposition in Belarus made the right choice in using Telegram. We can learn from them.
• Eric Lee is the founding editor of LabourStart. He writes this column in a personal capacity.