NEW YORK – A social network, privately run by a billionaire free-speech advocate, on a shoestring budget, hosting politicians with millions of followers, and with very loose content rules.
That’s the direction Twitter is going under Elon Musk, but it’s also the current iteration of Telegram, a messaging and broadcasting app that’s relatively unknown in the US and more than double Twitter’s size, with about 700 million active users, and even fewer staff.
As Mr Musk steers Twitter toward becoming a lawless paradise — most recently by dropping its Covid-19 misinformation rules and reinstating thousands of previously banned accounts — some have compared the platform to 4chan, the chaotic image board teeming with porn and racist memes. But Telegram, which has evolved into a broadcasting service similar to Twitter, offers a more realistic template. Its continued growth suggests a future that Mr Musk’s critics (myself included) will find difficult to swallow: Even as Twitter drains cash, staff and celebrity users, it could still thrive with activity.
Telegram was founded as a messaging app by Pavel Durov, a Russian-born libertarian billionaire whose strong views on free speech are reflected in the app’s scant rules on behavior. While Twitter has 16 rules about content, Telegram has just three.
Mr Musk’s latest actions suggest he’ll whittle Twitter’s policies down to Telegram’s size, initially by taking a more lax approach to enforcement. But he’ll pay the price in advertising dollars and famous names, just like Telegram. Despite its enormous size, Mr Durov’s platform boasts just a handful of Bollywood actors and leaders including Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Donald Trump Jr.
The reason, which will come as a surprise to no one, is that government leaders, celebrities and big brands don’t like sitting alongside a thriving network of extremists. On Telegram that includes QAnon influencer GhostEzra (177,000 followers), white supremacy propagandist Jack Posobiec (187,000 followers) and anti-Muslim activist and US political candidate Laura Loomer (31,400 followers). Porn and crypto pump-and-dump schemes also rank among some of the app’s most popular channels, with millions of followers.
Of course, the world of content is a gray one, and having no rules isn’t all bad. Telegram managed to avoid getting banned in Russia this year because it does nothing to misinformation, meaning it didn’t take down Kremlin propaganda about its “special military operation” in Ukraine, unlike YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. That allowed Telegram to become a rare gateway to the truth about the war for Russian citizens.
Importantly for Mr Musk, having fewer rules is also cheaper, since you don’t need thousands of content moderators and policy staff to enforce them. While Facebook has an estimated 15,000 moderators, Telegram gets by with a few hundred. Mr Musk again is moving in that direction, having recently cut 80 per cent of Twitter’s contractors who were mostly enforcing its content rules. In Musk speak, this is pulling Twitter back toward being more of a “tech firm,” where engineers and computer programmers are the rock stars, not policy staff. Sure, the latter have helped stop Twitter from undermining democracy, but they also weigh on margins.
There’s a few other ways that Telegram has preempted Mr Musk. For example, Mr Durov had a public beef with Apple in 2020 over its 30 per cent subscription fee two years before Mr Musk did, and he also launched Telegram’s US$5 subscription in June, while Twitter will launch its US$8 fee in due course.
Ultimately, Telegram’s continued popularity dispels any notion that Twitter will die. Celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Carrey and Trent Reznor, who’ve cited rising toxicity under Mr Musk, will continue to leave, but many others will stay, and reconcile themselves with sitting alongside anti-vax influencers and holocaust deniers. Today’s biggest social networks are entrenched. Even Facebook, despite its financial decline, continues to attract two billion users daily. And Mr Musk’s brutal cost-cutting at Twitter shows you don’t need huge armies of people to keep such services going. WhatsApp, prior to selling to Facebook in 2015, had 450 million active users and a workforce of just 55 people.
If Twitter’s revenue drops amid a full advertiser exodus, Mr Musk could probably run Twitter with an even smaller staff, financing the operation with those US$8 fees, a few remaining ads and his equity in Tesla. He’d face some major regulatory headaches from Europe, but the site would stay up and teem with activity, albeit with a wider array of crypto bros and bad actors.
Telegram shows that even with the loss of money, rules and advertisers, people tend to stay. It’ll be the same with Twitter. But it won’t be pretty. BLOOMBERG
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