Last August, when the return of the presidential elections showed that longtime Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko may have lost, his government quickly shut down the country’s communications infrastructure and targeted social media apps like WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook.
The telegram also stalled at first. But Mr. Durov intervened quickly and enabled so-called “anti-censorship tools” to keep the telegram going, including what is known as domain fronting, which obscures the source of online traffic.
After Mr. Lukashenko declared victory and demonstrators flocked to the streets, the telegram became a source of uninterrupted information and a platform for organizing resistance. The telegram channel for Nexta, an intelligence service run by Belarusian exiles in neighboring Poland, began providing logistical support to its two million local supporters by interspersing videos of police crackdown on demonstrators with instructions on and demonstration routes for daily demonstrations.
“The Internet was closed in Belarus for three days and nobody in the world knew what was going on,” said Stepan Svetlov, who runs Nexta. “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 an important platform for organizing and spreading anti-government protests in 2017 and 2019. It enabled protesters to share videos of violent practices when journalists and cameras were banned.
The Iranian government tried to ban the app in 2018, but it made little difference. The Iranians only used VPN networks to bypass the government’s blockade.
“It’s a hole in the Islamic Republic’s censorship walls,” said Omid Memarian, an independent human rights and technology analyst in Iran. “It’s the prevalent way of staying informed and connected and getting organized. Everyone uses it, including grandparents who don’t normally use technology, ”he said.