There is a notable rise in the use of messaging apps for sharing news in the last few years. Antonis Kalogeropoulos, Research Fellow at Reuters Institute, wrote in a 2019 report, “People are spending less time with relatively open networks like Facebook and more time with more private messaging applications like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Viber, and Telegram. They are also using them more heavily for news.”
Clearly, messaging apps are where social media is going next, and we and other publishers need to figure them out.Tom Standage, Deputy Editor, The Economist
Publishers including the BBC, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post and The Washington Post have been experimenting with various messaging apps for some years now.
And the trend appears enduring enough to have captured the attention of Mark Zuckerberg. The Facebook CEO who had earlier declared that the “age of privacy is over,” shared his ideas about a privacy-focused vision for social networking in a lengthy 2019 post.
As I think about the future of the internet, I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today’s open platforms.Mark Zuckerberg, Founder and CEO of Facebook
Which creates an interesting situation that can influence which messaging app is going to dominate in the future.
“Start moving important conversations off those services”
The apps that currently lead with most users—Whatsapp and Messenger—are Facebook products. Following these are WeChat and QQ Mobile which are dominant in China and are plagued by privacy concerns.
Zuckerberg shared further that he intends to integrate all of Facebook’s messaging services including Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. This, according to cyber security experts, is not easy and considering Facebook’s history with regards to user data, a worrying news.
Davey Winder, a Senior Contributor at Forbes covering cybersecurity wrote, “Mark Zuckerberg has stated that he wants the new platform that integrates WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram messaging to be end-to-end encrypted but that may well not be as easy to implement as he thinks, if possible at all.
“This is harder to achieve, at least in a way that could be thought of as being secure, than it sounds. Or at least it will be unless the plan is to completely re-engineer all three messaging services from the ground up.”
Matthew Green who teaches cryptography at Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute, shared a series of tweets explaining the security issues that would crop up if such a thing were to happen.
“Anyway, the summary is: this move could potentially be good or bad for security/privacy. But given recent history and financial motivations of Facebook, I wouldn’t bet my lunch money on “good”. Now is a great time to start moving important conversations off those services,” he concluded.
While users continue to flock on Facebook despite privacy concerns. They have become warier as noted by Pew Research. And that wariness can spillover to WhatsApp over time and in the light of Zuckerberg’s plans.
“WhatsApp without any of the icky data sharing with Facebook”
Journalist Vlad Savov commented in an earlier Verge article, “If you want to know the reason I’m not on WhatsApp with its other 1.5B users, the answer is Telegram. To people unfamiliar with it, I like to describe Telegram as simply WhatsApp without any of the icky data sharing with Facebook.”
An important reason behind the increase in the use of messaging apps for sharing news is that they offer better privacy.
“Privacy is an important issue for users, and this partly explains the growth in use of messaging apps, as opposed to more open social networks,” writes Antonis Kalogeropoulos in The Rise of Messaging Apps for News.
Users in some ‘less free’ countries are more likely to think carefully before expressing their political views online. However, we can see that people also turn to messaging apps in non-authoritarian countries. One reason is that they do not always feel comfortable in expressing their political views in front of friends, family, and acquaintances.Antonis Kalogeropoulos, The Rise of Messaging Apps for News
This is seen in the rapid adaptation of Telegram in countries where the authorities have been clamping down on freedom of expression. July 2019 saw a 323% year-on-year increase in first-time Telegram installs in Hong Kong, during pro-democracy protests; the first week of August saw 41,000 new users (100% up on the first week of June 2019), according to BusinessofApps.
It is the most popular messaging application in Iran, with an estimated 50M users. The government banned it temporarily when they found that it was being used to spread messages about protests against the clergy-dominated establishment in Iran.
The Islamic Republic government official news agency reports, “Although using Telegram was limited due to the internet disconnection in the country, using the app started to increase immediately after reconnection of the internet, reaching unprecedented levels in recent months.
“On average, Telegram was used 197M times per day more than the previous Iranian month during (November 22-December 21)”
Telegram founder Pavel Durov has always underlined that ensuring the privacy of users was important for Telegram. It is also reflected in the enhanced security features offered by the app.
It’s not foolproof and has been hacked but Durov’s commitment stands out. He famously refused to bow to the Russian government’s pressure to hand over encryption keys leading to a ban on the app in the country.
“Positioned to capture a whole new generation of users”
While it has a much smaller user base compared to WhatsApp and Messenger, Telegram has seen steady growth since 2014, the year Facebook acquired WhatsApp.
In fact it saw millions of news users just after the acquisition.
Moreover, Telegram has seen spikes in user growth when there has been trouble at Facebook/ Whatsapp. For example, the late 2019 data breach at Whatsapp saw increase in Telegram (and Signal) downloads. Earlier, in March 2019, it was reported that Telegram added 3M new users over 24 hours during a spate of Facebook outages, which included WhatsApp. WhatsApp bans in Brazil in 2015 (48 hours) and 2016 (72 hours) sent 5.7M and 7M new users to Telegram respectively.
Telegram appears to be a strong alternative for publishers experimenting with messaging apps to engage users. Its emphasis on privacy and features like large file sharing (up to 1.5 GB), allowing up to 200,000 group members, podcast and audiobook support, and post views counter, serve both readers and publishers.
Telegram is a platform that is positioned to capture a whole new generation of users growing up with a completely digital lifestyle. It pitches privacy, favors cryptocurrencies and offers features which enable it to be an all-in-one app — a strategy already proven to work in the East.Lance Ng, Investor and Entrepreneur based in Singapore
“It’s all about international audiences”
Bloomberg is using Telegram, a messaging app, when most of the United States is not. Why? It’s all about international audiences. The most popular messaging app in the US is Facebook Messenger, but apps like WhatsApp, Line and Telegram are more popular elsewhere in the world.Ren LaForme, Digital Tools Reporter, Poynter
Bloomberg launched its Telegram channel in December and currently has over 29K subscribers. It sends out about two messages everyday featuring breaking news, the biggest stories and additional information from its reporters.
“Bloomberg news editors craft the messages, and often stud them with emojis, to read more like a short newsletter than just a list of headlines and links. The editors who write the daily update messages are encouraged to adopt a more conversational tone and provide more context for each story link,” reports Digiday’s Deanna Ting.
“Telegram’s Instant View feature lets users read certain stories within the app, enabling them to circumvent Bloomberg’s paywall. But the story includes links so these readers will be encouraged to sign up for Bloomberg News subscriptions,” she adds.
“There’s more noise in your inbox than there used to be”
The publisher had an active Whatsapp channel earlier. Bloomberg’s Digital Managing Editor, Katie Boyce told Digiday, “For us, the biggest benefit was the one-on-one relationship that we created with these users. Right now, media organizations are utilizing newsletters for that, but there’s more noise in your inbox than there used to be.”
Our readers were using dark social [media channels] to share content with friends and family so we wanted to meet them there and create a more direct relationship by sending daily conversational messages that were written by our editors and not an algorithm.Katie Boyce, Digital Managing Editor, Bloomberg
“It was much more intimate and engaged. We built up this nice highly engaged audience who would give us feedback,” she added. It allowed Bloomberg to lay the groundwork needed for a subscription audience. The publisher now hopes to do the same with Telegram.
“You can really reach the entire audience of the channel”
In Ukraine, journalists are using Telegram to create public news channels. According to global market research and market information group Kantar, nearly half of Telegram’s Ukrainian audience is under the age of 25, and many of them don’t watch television or listen to radio news.
Tetyana Nikolayenko, Co-creator of popular Ukrainian Telegram channel The Newsroom, told journalist Tanya Gordiienko, “We had an understanding that Telegram is quite effective as a medium. If you post something on Facebook, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone will see your message. With Telegram, you can really reach the entire audience of the channel.”
“Platforms that journalists cannot ignore”
“WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Telegram, and their ilk are platforms that journalists cannot ignore — even in the US, where chat-app usage is low,” writes Sharon Moshavi, SVP, New Initiatives at the International Center for Journalists.
Referring to the troubling trend of disinformation spreading through messaging apps she suggests, “It’s imperative that news media figure out how to map the contours of these opaque, unruly spaces, and deliver fact-based news to those who congregate there. Journalists must experiment with different ways to identify and engage the chat-app influencers and networks that can amplify quality journalism.”
US journalists clearly need to engage—and experiment—more.Sharon Moshavi, Senior VP, New Initiatives, ICFJ
And adds, “Messaging apps remain great for engaging audiences—by responding to questions, or crowdsourcing, or receiving texts, photos, and videos during breaking news or making the editorial process more visible and accessible to readers.”
“The challenge for publishers is to determine how to connect with audiences as they continue their shift from open to closed platforms while developing value propositions that are financially viable,” concludes Nic Newman, Research Associate, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.