Telegram groups as Online Alterity: Empowering or Disempowering?

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On: October 1, 2021
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Over the recent years, there have been many debates on freedom of expression and user privacy online. While moderation on social media platforms seems to be increasing every year, messaging app Telegram chooses a different path, saying they are committed to protecting freedom of expression and user privacy above all else (McCarthy 2019). It may look like Telegram is doing something great by providing a ‘safe’ space online where online privacy and freedom of speech is guaranteed. But, there is a lot of critique on how these properties of the platform attract illicit behaviours to take place (Kraus 2020). Is Telegram empowering people by allowing them to create large online communities or is Telegram disempowering people by accepting hate speech on their app? We will use the article ‘Margins as Methods, Margins as Ethics: A Feminist Framework for Studying Online Alterity’ by Rosemary Clark-Parsons and Jessa Linge to study Telegram as empowering or disempowering alternative media.

Telegram as ‘Safe Haven’?

According to Clark-Parsons and Linge (2020), the term ‘alternative media’ is used in internet studies to describe digital messages and practices that subvert the dominant order. Telegram can be seen as alternative media because it offers a new type of online communication. Unlike other communication platforms, Telegram offers anonymous and encrypted communication in private and public one-to-many group chats, with little to no moderation (McCarthy 2019). On Telegram, users can create private groups up to 200,000 users, allowing organisation and interaction with like-minded people, without being in the physical presence of each other (Binder 2021) (Venturini et al. 2018).

According to Fix, Telegram is used for community building and their communities are the most engaged communities across all social media platforms (THEFIXTEAM 2021). Clark-Parsons and Linge (2020): ‘’Digital technologies can enable people who are underrepresented in mainstream media to share their experiences and perspectives’’ (p. 4). In Africa, Telegram has become an important tool for people like bloggers, activists and politicians who want to spread information to large groups of people (Achieng 2021). According to Clark-Parsons and Linge (2020) researchers site these types of digital networks as participatory, horizontal, and democratic to argue that the internet lends itself to the subversive, anti-establishment ethos of alternative media. But is alternative media with full freedom of speech that participatory, horizontal and democratic? 

 ‘Dangerous Individuals’ finding their way to Telegram

It may look like Telegram is doing something great by providing an online space where privacy and freedom of speech are guaranteed. But, there is a lot of critique on how these properties of the platform attract illicit behaviours to take place (Kraus 2020). Clark-Parsons and Linge (2020) believe that these types of platform politics may leave members at risk of repression and harassment. Telegram is creating a climate for normalising harmful practices with consequences that go far beyond the online environment (Popa-Wyatt 2018).

According to Alexander Brow (2018), anonymity is one of the features of the internet which can result in online hate speech. Telegram allows users to be completely anonymous, which can result in the fact that users are more outrageous or hateful in what they say. Brown: ‘’The associated feeling of liberation may drive people to give in to their worst tendencies’’ (p. 299).  Platforms like Facebook and Instagram remove ‘dangerous individuals’ engaged or involved in ‘organised hate’ and/or ‘organized violence’. Thanks to Telegram’s loose regulatory framework for content moderation (Semenzin and Bainotti 2020) these ‘dangerous individuals’ find their way to Telegram, where they can post whatever they want, without consequences (Rogers 2020).

The messaging app has had problems in the past with terrorists, using Telegram as an online propaganda tool to promote ISIS. Although the company did moderate some of this terrorist propaganda, there is a lot of other violent content they don’t moderate. There are many examples of white supremacists or users sharing ‘revenge-porn’ that have found a home on Telegram (Binder 2021). While mainstream social media platforms have taken steps to limit the spread of revenge-porn, the problem continues on Telegram. In these Telegram groups for ‘exposing’, men are encouraged to share intimate images of ex-partners, as well as revealing their personal information (Achieng 2021). Telegram’s Terms of Service prohibits the sharing of ‘illegal pornographic content’, but they don’t actively moderate it. In private groups they don’t moderate it at all, leaving victims of ‘exposing’ powerless (Kraus 2020).

Gendered affordances on Telegram

Clark-Parsons and Linge are using a feminist approach to study marginalized groups and communities online. Clark-Parsons and Linge (2020): ‘’Feminist standpoint theory holds that all forms of knowledge are socially, politically and historically situated and, consequently, marginalized groups are situated in positions that grant instructive views of societal power relation’’ (p. 7). Online platforms play an important role in maintaining the social structures of gendered inequality. Feminists have been calling for more attention to the design of technologies, because technology often come with socially embedded assumptions about gender, race, and sexuality (Schwarz and Neff 2019).

Semenzin and Bainotti (2020) note that Telegram affordances can be considered as gendered affordances. Semenzin and Bainotti: ‘’Telegram suggest different behaviours to different users according to their gender, while contributing to reinforce already existing gendered power hierarchies’’ (p. 4). This is reflected in the moderation practices of Telegram. While Telegram is taking down some of the terrorist propaganda, it is impossible for women and girls to get their intimate images or private information taken down. Telegram does not process any requests in relation to intimate images of women, not even when images of girls as young as 14 years old are being shared in Durban Telegram groups (Achieng 2021).

Telegram: Empowering or Disempowering?

Rosemary Clark-Parsons and Jessa Linge note that marginalized people often experience online harassment and hate speech online, but that online technologies can also uplift silenced voices and build supportive communities. I agree with this statement and think it applies to Telegram. I believe Telegram can be applauded for creating a data secure platform where people can create large communities. But, they should take a more active role in protecting marginalized groups. The fact that Telegram is in some way contributing to normalizing harassment and gender inequality makes the app in my opinion disempowering. Overall I don’t see Telegram as a ‘Safe Haven’ and I believe there must be better alternatives for marginalized people to build a supportive community online, that is safe and secure at the same time. 

References

  • Achieng, Garnett. 2021. ‘Women Are Talking but Telegram Is Not Listening’. GenderIt.org. In Depth. April 2021. https://genderit.org/articles/women-are-talking-telegram-not-listening.
  • Binder, Matt. 2021. ‘What You Need To Know About Telegram, The WhatsApp Alternative’. Mashable India. 27 January 2021. https://in.mashable.com/tech/19823/what-you-need-to-know-about-telegram-the-whatsapp-alternative.
  • Clark-Parsons, Rosemary, and Jessa Lingel. 2020. ‘Margins as Methods, Margins as Ethics: A Feminist Framework for Studying Online Alterity’. Social Media + Society 6 (1): 2056305120913994. https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305120913994.
  • Kraus, Rachel. 2020. ‘After Their Nudes Were Illegally Shared on Telegram, They Fought Back’. Mashable. 29 October 2020. https://mashable.com/article/nudes-revenge-porn-crime-telegram.
  •  McCarthy, Sissel. 2019. ‘Q: What Is Telegram and Why Doesn’t It Censor Hate Speech?’ News Literacy Matters (blog). 6 September 2019. https://newsliteracymatters.com/2019/09/06/q-what-is-telegram-and-why-doesnt-it-censor-hate-speech/.
  • Popa-Wyatt, Mihaela, and Jeremy L. Wyatt. 2018. ‘Slurs, Roles and Power’. Philosophical Studies 175 (11): 2879–2906. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-017-0986-2.
  • Rogers, Richard. 2020. ‘Deplatforming: Following Extreme Internet Celebrities to Telegram and Alternative Social Media’. European Journal of Communication 35 (3): 213–29. https://doi.org/10.1177/0267323120922066.
  • Schwartz, Becca, and Gina Neff. 2019. ‘The Gendered Affordances of Craigslist “New-in-Town Girls Wanted” Ads’. New Media & Society 21 (11–12): 2404–21. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444819849897.
  • Semenzin, Silvia, and Lucia Bainotti. 2020. ‘The Use of Telegram for the Non-Consensual Dissemination of Intimate Images: Gendered Affordances and the Construction of Masculinities’. SocArXiv. https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/v4f63.
  • THEFIXTEAM. 2021. ‘Instagram, TikTok, Telegram: Insights for Publishers’. The Fix. 9 March 2021. https://thefix.media/2021/03/09/instagram-tiktok-telegram-publishers/.
  • Venturini, Tommaso, Liliana Bounegru, Jonathan Gray, and Richard Rogers. 2018. ‘A Reality Check(List) for Digital Methods’. New Media and Society 20 (11): 4195–4217. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444818769236.
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