January 14, 2021

Gigantic numbers released this week indicate that encrypted messaging apps are on the rise — and this is disturbing for some members of the fact-checking community.

Reporting by Axios showed private messaging app Signal saw a 677% increase in downloads between Jan. 5-10. Telegram’s downloads increased by 146% over the same period of time.

According to Statista, a consumer data company, Telegram had 400 million users in April 2020. On Tuesday, its founder, Pavel Durov, said in a post that the platform added 25 million users in the past three days. This means it added more than 8 million new users every 24 hours — roughly the population of New York City.

The growth may be attributable to three recent events. First is the banning of President Donald Trump and many of his followers from Twitter, Facebook and Youtube. The platforms justified these actions citing “the risk of further incitement of violence” after last week’s storming of the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob.

Second, Google Play and the App Store banned Parler, an app popular with conservatives and supporters of conspiracy theories like QAnon. Amazon Web Services followed suit by removing Parler after it refused to implement content moderation policies. Amazon listed examples of content it used to justify its decision in its response to a lawsuit by Parler Tuesday.

But there is still another reason. WhatsApp, another popular messaging app that’s owned by Facebook, released new terms of use — and misinformation about those new terms spread, making some users move to other messaging apps. WhatsApp users have until Feb. 8 to accept a new privacy policy that allows WhatsApp to share certain specific content with Facebook. In actuality, Users were already sharing much of this content, and the company explained in a Jan. 11 blog post these changes would mainly affect user messages to businesses, and not end-to-end encrypted personal messaging.

This shift to alternative platforms worries Wilson Center disinformation researcher Nina Jankowicz. She acknowledged that de-platforming makes it harder for spreaders of disinformation to attract followers to their cause, but said, “What worries me is the attack surface spreading out. It’s becoming more diffuse and difficult to monitor.”

Jankowicz said that apps like Telegram are not as easily searchable as Twitter and Facebook, and influencers can direct followers off of mainstream apps to these less transparent groups. She also noted that Telegram specifically presents an ethical challenge to those fighting the spread of harmful disinformation.

“Terrorists use it, ISIS used it, but also it was the main vector for which protests in Belarus were organized this summer,” she said. “We need to be able to preserve these mass methods of communication, and also somehow crack down on content that poses a threat to public safety or democracy.”

Christopher Guess, lead technologist at the Duke Reporters’ Lab, acknowledged Jankowicz’s concern but argued that Signal and Parler don’t represent a fundamentally different threat than private groups on Facebook or WhatsApp.

“Will groups use them? Of course. They already are” Guess said. But he added the audience for conspiracy theories like QAnon or falsehoods about the 2020 election will be significantly diminished.

“Radicalization usually starts in places people are. Moving to a second platform is the next step, removing people from possible dissent,” Guess said. “If that second step is challenging, it’s a big burden to keep the process churning.”

Jankowicz noted that the success or failure of groups on these alternative platforms may depend on how they are legitimized by politicians.

“What I’ve seen today in Congress so far has not made me extremely optimistic about officials and authoritative voices fanning the flames of this discontent,” she said, referencing the debate on the House floor over impeaching President Trump. Jankowicz advocated for rules in the House and Senate to crack down on political figures spreading baseless claims.

“The legitimization and laundering of these false narratives by elected officials and other influential folks can’t be discounted,” she said.

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Harrison Mantas is a reporter for the International Fact-Checking Network covering the wide world of misinformation. He previously worked in Arizona and Washington D.C. for…
Harrison Mantas

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