Chain Messages Are Back

Anthony Cuthbertson, the Independent:

WhatsApp rival Telegram has seen a 500 per cent increase in new users amid widespread dissatisfaction with the way the Facebook-owned app handles people’s data.

Telegram recorded 25 million new users over the last 72 hours, according to founder Pavel Durov, taking the total number of users above 500 million.

This is roughly a quarter of the estimated 2 billion WhatsApp users around the world, though many users of the world’s most popular messaging app took to social media this week to urge others to leave the platform due to privacy concerns.

The privacy policy changes WhatsApp made allow it to share more personal information with parent company Facebook, though executives are desperately trying to explain that this is only for business communications. Nevertheless, their complete failure to explain this change has sent some users flocking to Signal and Telegram. More worrying is that the temporary lull in Parler’s availability has inspired terrible people to look elsewhere.

Anna Schecter, NBC News:

Right-wing extremists are using channels on the encrypted communication app Telegram to call for violence against government officials on Jan. 20, the day President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated, with some extremists sharing knowledge of how to make, conceal and use homemade guns and bombs.

The messages are being posted in Telegram chatrooms where white supremacist content has been freely shared for months, but chatter on the channels has increased since extremists have been forced off other platforms in the wake of the siege of the U.S. Capitol last week by pro-Trump rioters.

Ignore the scary use of “encrypted” here — Telegram Channels are not encrypted, and encryption itself is not a specific worry. What interests me are the ways that misinformation is spreading now.

Telegram Channels are public, and messages posted in there can be forwarded within Telegram to other Channels, Groups, and individuals. They can also be sent as standard web links, which is how I came across a semi-popular post — archived here — claiming that:

  • Apple is about to pull Telegram from the App Store

  • Apple is going to remotely delete all existing copies of Telegram installed on users’ devices

  • You can prevent your copy from being deleted by disabling the ability to delete apps in parental controls

I have no reason to suspect the first claim is true. Telegram is a widely-used messaging app popular around the world for mostly legitimate uses. The second claim is incongruent with Apple’s treatment of Parler; existing copies of the app are still functional, theoretically. The third claim has absolutely no relevance towards anything here, and is not how that feature works. But this one message has racked up well over two hundred thousand views.

It is not just Telegram, or even solely a problem of these apps. Ben Collins, also at NBC News, explains how these fictions are now circulating through text messages:

One viral false conspiracy theory shared across the U.S. implores users to disable automatic software updates on their cellphones, claiming that the next patch will disable an emergency broadcasting system message from President Donald Trump. The false rumors are usually attached to another urban legend about a blackout coming in the next two weeks, which say people should be “prepared with food and water.”

Another viral text is a link to a deceptively edited video, also known as a “cheapfake,” that first appeared on the Twitter-like social media platform Parler. It features a series of mashed-up speeches by Trump that are realigned to lead the viewer to falsely believe he is calling for an uprising on Jan. 20.

This reminds me of the days of chain social media posts — post this and tag three friends or you won’t wake up tomorrow, that kind of thing — and chain emails before that, and chain posts on BBSes before that, and chain letters with actual postage before that.

But those posts seem quaint compared to what we’re seeing today. The conspiracy theories of the past seemed to be based on historical events. The ones that are circulating now are creating an alternate reality for the here and now. Instead of overanalyzing specks of dust in the Zapruder film decades on, there are now people who make a living by denying an audience the reality of what is happening before their very eyes. Neither chain letters nor invented versions of events are new; but, perhaps it is the combination of those and the speed of technology and lucrative careers in professional grifting that have given these messages unwelcome power.

Update: Because Telegram Channels are public, the company is able to moderate them. It has been pulling down neo-Nazi and extremist Channels for years and has continued to act.