‘Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?’ sang my fellow Ottawan Alanis Morissette. Of course, the really ironic thing was that Morissette didn’t understand the meaning of ironic. Nevertheless, her words often come to mind when thinking of developments in the United States, especially when they involve Russia. For when it comes to matters Russo-American, the cup of irony truly runneth over.
Take, for instance, the purge of conservatives from social media following the riot in Washington a couple of weeks ago in which a mob of supporters of now ex-president Donald Trump invaded the Capitol building. As anybody who has been even remotely following American politics for the past four years will know, Trump and his supporters have been repeatedly accused of being puppets of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Expelling them from social media is thus portrayed as in part a liberation of the United States from years of Russia disinformation and behind-the-scenes manipulation.
But where have these purged conservatives gone?
One answer is that they have fled from Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and all the rest of them, to the messaging app Telegram. Indeed Telegram has been making hay, portraying itself as the home of free speech, and inviting people to defect to it en masse. Adverts have been popping up on my computer screen, showing a deleted Twitter symbol alongside the words ‘Leave Censorship’, followed by Telgram’s symbol and the words ‘Choose Freedom’, and then the hashtag ‘#LeaveTwitterJoinTelegram’.
But what is Telegram? It’s a Russian app, that’s what. And it’s doing really well from the media purge in America. This week the number of Telegram subscribers passed 500 million, with tens of millions having joined in just a couple of weeks.
From a Russian point of view, the irony is sweet: suddenly, America is the home of censorship, and Russia the home of free speech. More broadly, the irony lies in the fact that the assault on Russian disinformation has driven tens of millions of people into the hands of the Russians. You kinda gotta laugh.
And it’s not just Telegram. Also involved in this story is a conservative rival to Twitter which goes by the name of Parler (I’ve heard people pronounce this as ‘parlour’, but Americans don’t speak French any more than they do irony, so I guess we have to forgive them). Founded in 2018, Parler attracted conservatives who felt that Twitter was censoring them, and to that end it advertised itself as a bastion of free speech.
Until a couple of weeks ago, Parler had somewhere around 2 million users, making it something of a minnow on the social media scene. Nevertheless, it was deemed sufficiently objectionable for the rest of the internet community to gang up to shut it down, first throwing it off the various app stores from which people downloaded it, and then denying it access to any computer servers.
So what has Parler done about it? According to today’s news, it’s moved to Russia, finding a new home on the servers of the Russian tech company DDoS-Guard. It expects to be back online and operating again by the end of January.
Heh, heh, heh. Just a few weeks ago, left-wing conspiracy theorists were claiming that Parler was a Russian asset. Well, guess what? It wasn’t, but then you shut it down, and now it is! How’s that for irony?
Now, I want to be clear about one thing. I’m not a fan of the sort of right-wing nutjobbery which got Trump and so many of his supporters thrown off social media. I don’t follow those kind of people, have never used Parler, and don’t intend to. Sadly, the internet is in part a beautiful source of wonderfully useful information and in part a cesspool of rotten filth. I can see why people want to do something about the latter.
But part of what makes the cesspool is the fact that the internet encourages people to self-isolate among those who share their own out-of-the-way beliefs. At least if they are all together on the same platforms, there’s a chance that they might be subjected to some alternative points of view now and again. But that changes once you boot them out. At that point, you don’t actually shut them up. As we’ve seen above, they just find somewhere else to go. But now they’re by themselves even more than they were before. How that is meant to help make things better, I really don’t know. I fear that it will just add to embittered sense of persecution that lies behind so many of America’s current political problems.
Meanwhile, as American social media rips itself apart, Russian internet providers are raking in the profits. It’s ironic, don’t you think?