What’s up with WhatsApp: How journalists use messaging apps

Global demonstrations for Hong Kong’s future and Black Lives Matter have depended on protesters using messaging apps like WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal to amass, organize, and communicate in real time. These apps have been popular as well among journalists seeking sources and keeping abreast with day-to-day action. As authorities crack down on both protesters and the press, however, the security of these digital communications becomes crucial. How well do these messaging apps serve journalists?

“Journalists, like many other people, are increasingly reliant on messaging apps to conduct interviews with members of the public via WhatsApp calls or messages, for example,” said Javier Garza, safety advisor for the World Editors Forum. “As journalists, we therefore need an added level of digital security in the ways we communicate on these platforms, to protect ourselves and our sources.”

WhatsApp, the most popular messaging app in Southeast Asia, South America, Australia and Russia, is regarded as one of the most accessible apps for connecting reporters to the public. It is also the oldest of the three, in force during the Hong Kong protests of 2013, said William Chang, senior associate at Inspera Partners and former AAJA Detroit sub-chapter president.

“Many journalists created their first user groups on WhatsApp, because it was the most reliable platform at the time,” he said. Reporters used WhatsApp to exchange details on when and where protesters might be gathering, or where police were firing tear gas, for example. “These groups acted as virtual listers, to help journalists keep track of major events happening during the protests and verify their sources,” Chang added. “In many ways, WhatsApp was the first platform journalists used to create a press network for themselves.”

Recently, however, breaches in WhatsApp security have threatened the safety of protesters and activists worldwide. In Lebanon, government authorities infiltrated WhatsApp chat groups to identify protest organizers and arrest them. Since then, three people have been summoned by
the criminal investigations department and accused of “inciting sectarianism and racism.”

WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, also has handed over user data to legal authorities in the past. Nonetheless, it remains the world’s most popular messaging app, reporting two billion users in July. Wong Shiying of Singapore Press Holdings is one of the many journalists today that
continue to use WhatsApp to communicate with sources. “Everyone has WhatsApp so it’s convenient,” she said. “It’s also more personal than email which helps me build better relationships with my newsmakers.”

A new addition to the messaging app family, Signal, is known for its heightened digital security and privacy. Endorsed by leading figures in the tech community such as Edward Snowden and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, the strong end-to-end encryption feature ensures that every text and
voice message is well protected from potential hackers.

One key distinction of Signal is that it does not store any personal information of its users. “With Signal, users can be sure that their data will not be turned over to the authorities in the event of governments attempting to track specific individuals or crack down on protests,” said Garza. He explained that this is not the case with other more popular messaging apps such as WhatsApp, which has cooperated with law enforcement to hand over user data. With end-to-end encryption, the content of messages cannot be shared except by the users themselves.

This up-and-coming messaging app is supported by Open Whisper Systems, which developed Signal as an open-source project. The open-source community created the app with the specific aim of helping journalists, activists, and human rights defenders have a secure means to
communicate. Signal’s popularity has reportedly increased in significant numbers, averaging over 10 million downloads on Android alone, according to the Google Play Store’s count, especially in the United States due to the recent George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests. According to Apptopia, Signal was downloaded 37,000 times at the end of May, and experienced a 400% jump in daily downloads since the 2016 election as well.

During pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong alone, Telegram experienced a 323% year-on-year increase in first-time installations in July 2019, with 41,000 new users in the first week of August that year. As of July 2020, Telegram has over 400 million active users, with its user base doubling within 2 years. The messaging app is known for information channels that
attract users by their interests, and its encryption option.

“I’ve found multiple sources on Telegram through joining groups organized around the topics I’m writing about,” said Kristie Chan, journalist at Forkast.News. “I also found that people in general prefer being interviewed through the app when it concerns more sensitive topics like politics,
due to its Secret Chat function and its reputation for privacy.”

Telegram channels are centered on a topic and led by moderators. Unlimited numbers of users can subscribe to them anonymously. For her reporting on the recent Hong Kong protests, Chan joined several channels that offered information on protest locations and general news updates.

“In addition to messaging, I also find Telegram to be extremely useful in collecting logistical information, as its channels have been often used in organizing and publicizing protests, and can accommodate an extremely large number of people,” Chan said. “Organized channels and
groups make it easier to source for informants, especially about more specialized topics such as cryptocurrency enthusiasts among pro-democracy protestors.”

“I’ve turned to it when looking for people to talk to who have first-hand knowledge of the protests, with considerable success,” she added. “Perhaps how it allows for some illusion of anonymity makes sources much more comfortable in speaking to me.”

Garza cautions about trusting Telegram’s security, however. Experts have revealed that the messaging app is privy to metadata exposure and exploitation. Unlike WhatsApp and Signal, Telegram conversations do not have end-to-end encryptions by default. “Telegram has end-to-end encryption, but users have to opt into it, with the Secret Chat function and/or other security features on the app,” Garza explains.

Telegram’s very strength, its information channels, has also caused its weakness of compromising data security. “Users’ locations and sometimes, identities, can be found out through the Telegram channels they are on that can accommodate thousands of users at one time,” he said. “This results in their privacy being compromised.”

“At this point,” Garza added, “Telegram is leaning towards being more of a social network.”

As messaging apps today experience greater scrutiny and attention to their strengths and weaknesses, it is important for journalists to choose the right tools for their reporting, to safeguard the information they acquire, and that of their own.