From a tool for promoting democracy to a means used to spread extremist propaganda content online: the evolution of Telegram tells us that it is time to use the instrument of law and politics and to introduce effective rules against technological monopolies
From an emblem of free speech and an effective system of protection to oversee political resistance movements against the censorship of authoritarian regimes, Telegram has become, by its very peculiarities, a fertile ground for extremist organizations that today have more and more difficulty in interact on other well-known social networks.
But is it really all social media to blame for the current pervasive spread not only of hoaxes but also of manipulative content tending to encourage hate speech? And, if so, how and why did this mutation occur? And what tools to adopt to avoid further drifts?
In reality, as emerges from a recent in-depth article published in the “New York Times”, social networks do not represent the “evil” to be eradicated, without which the information quality of the digital environment would improve but it is also a fact that Telegram, notoriously considered an “instrument for democracy”, acting as a support service for resistance movements operating, for example, in Iran and Belarus, is instead increasingly used to convey extremist propaganda content.
The evolution of Telegram, from an anti-censorship tool to a refuge for subversives
The times when the messaging app, financed almost entirely by founder Pavel Durov without advertising and external investors, represented the emblem of free speech that even Russia (of which Durov is a citizen, even though living in self-imposed exile) seem distant. , had failed to limit.
Thanks to the availability of servers distributed all over the world that are difficult to control by governments, in its traditional meaning Telegram has, in fact, embodied a real threat for authoritarian leaders who, as in Russia or Iran, have tried to ban it for sharing uncensored information protected by encrypted communication systems.
In Belarus, for example, when the dictator Lukashenko ordered the closure of all the country’s communication infrastructures, also targeting social media (such as WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook), Telegram represented the only source of anti-censorship information, allowing a constant circulation of messages to organize protest groups. As in Iran, where the use of Telegram was decisive in spreading anti-government protests in 2017 and 2019, despite the government’s attempt to censor it.
In recent times, however, there has been a progressive emigration of subversive groups towards Telegram which, as a safe haven, tends to become a worrying place of online conspiracy where racist content and violent insurrectionists proliferate, due to the most stringent policies to remove content adopted by the main social networks to combat the phenomenon of fake news, to the point of inducing the FBI to alert the police forces around the world to the risk of possible armed attacks by extremist and racist groups.
Telegram, disinformation, extremism
Already in the midst of the pandemic, for example, a large-scale disinformation campaign organized by a network of about 650 Telegram groups active throughout the country with the aim of disseminating incorrect information on COVID-19 was discovered in Germany.
Just as in Ukraine the existence of numerous Telegram channels where political disinformation circulated in the country was found in order to destabilize its institutional dynamics.
This revolutionary trend is constantly growing, despite the reassurances communicated by the founder Durov to repress extremism: there are about 25 million new users registered on Telegram in the last month as a likely consequence of the mass purge decided by Facebook and Twitter following the assault on the Capitol on 6 January. There was even a real “endorsement” made by Trump’s son who announced his subscription to Telegram, urging his supporters to follow him on the grounds of using a tool that “represents freedom of speech” with respect to censorship pursued by Big Tech culminating in the removal of the father’s social presence.
Telegram, therefore, precisely because it offers an instant and private communication service, as well as become a safe haven for those who intend to convey propaganda information with the intent of planning riots and recruiting new followers in conditions of greater ease without being traced.
The features that make Telegram an “anti-censorship” tool
Indeed, even a worse degeneration of disinformation fueled by the characteristics of the Telegram cryptographic messaging system is expected.
The exchange of secret communications, in fact, if on the one hand, it ensures the protection of privacy, on the other hand, however, it could be used to provoke violent riots with greater difficulty in identifying those responsible, thanks to the disclosure potential offered by the tool capable of thus aggravating political instability as a trigger for violent protests far beyond the existence of a simple dissent manifested in the context of critical civilians, hindering the investigation of any planned crimes in the context of hidden conversations.
All this demonstrates the easy mobility of the “harmful” communicative flow shared online which, even in the absence of the well-known social platforms, would be able to spread very easily in any area of the virtual space of the Internet without any possibility of integral control over the related information disseminated.
In this scenario, faced with the risks of “cyber-surveillance” and online electoral interference that alter the regular formation of public opinion, rather than encouraging a constant “witch hunt” campaign, blaming social platforms as “scapegoats” for all the criticalities that can be found in the digital environment, it would instead be appropriate to use the instrument of law and politics, according to a regulatory approach appropriate to the current times of technological innovation, capable of overcoming the current formalistic dogmatism of legal thought, to introduce rules effective able to contain the monopolistic concentration of the technological domain in the hands of a few companies, while strengthening the basic digital culture of individuals through avant-garde computer literacy training programs functional to the acquisition of modern skills essential to stimulate an adequate level of aware Widespread pitfalls in the digital environment
Digital can play a decisive role in the general development of social and economic progress, provided that, in the face of an imminent scenario of epochal change that projects humanity in a direction of no return to the past, if we want to avoid giving in definitively the “techno-political” hegemony to the “web giants” as pre-eminent global players at the top of new world order, the current inconsistency of public policies, immobilized by rigid bureaucratic practices now obsolete, is overcome, revitalizing the functioning of political-institutional through the elaboration of a future vision capable of realizing concrete processes of digital transformation.