Telegram, Pro-Democracy Tool, Struggles Over New Fans From Far Right

Last August, when presidential election returns began to show that Belarus’s longtime dictator, Aleksandr Lukashenko, might have lost, his government quickly shut down the country’s communications infrastructure, targeting social media applications like WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook.

Telegram, too, faltered at first. But Mr. Durov quickly intervened, enabling what he called “anti-censorship tools” to keep Telegram running, probably including what is known as domain fronting, which disguises the source of online traffic.

After Mr. Lukashenko declared victory and protesters poured into the streets, Telegram was a source of uninterrupted information and a platform for organizing resistance. The Telegram channel for Nexta, a news service run by Belarusian exiles in neighboring Poland, began providing logistical support for its two million local followers, interspersing videos of a police crackdown on protesters with instructions about, and march routes for, daily demonstrations.

“For three days the internet was shut down in Belarus, and no one in the world knew what was going on,” Stepan Svetlov, who runs Nexta, said. “The only source of information was Telegram.”

In Iran, where Telegram usage takes up 60 percent of the country’s internet bandwidth, the app was a crucial platform for organizing and spreading antigovernment protests in 2017 and 2019. It enabled protesters to share videos of violent crackdowns when journalists and cameras were banned.

The Iranian government tried to ban the app in 2018, but it made little difference. Iranians just used VPN networks to circumvent the government blockage.

“It’s a hole in the censorship walls of the Islamic Republic,” said Omid Memarian, an independent analyst on human rights and technology in Iran. “It is the dominant way to stay informed and connected and to organize. Everyone uses it, even grandparents who don’t typically navigate technology,” he said.

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