Telegram messenger, created by an exiled Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov, brands itself as a non-mainstream and non-Western guarantor of privacy in messaging. This paper by PhD candidates Azadeh Akbari and Rashid Gabdulhakov, published in Surveillance & Society Journal, offers an in-depth analysis of the challenges faced by the platform in Iran, with 59.5% of the population using its services, and in Russia, where Telegram is popular among the urban dissent. They also address the nuances of their collaboration and explain how and why they have decided to team up in their research.
What is going on in Iran and Russia? What does your paper bring to the table?
Despite the extensive body of work on privacy, surveillance and democracy in Western countries, only recently have these concepts received academic attention in the context of authoritarianism and undemocratic governance. Our paper aims to contribute to the field of surveillance studies by demonstrating, through the example of Iran and Russia, how authoritarian states disrupt, block, and police platforms that do not comply with their intrusive surveillance. Additionally, we discuss the tools and actors that make up internet control assemblages, as well as the resistance assemblages that challenge platform surveillance and censorship.
Focusing on the case of Telegram, our paper scrutinizes platform surveillance as a process with social, political, and economic aspects and ramifications. As authoritarian governments tighten their grip on the free internet, platforms such as Telegram present new possibilities to think, act and post messages alternatively. In doing so, they bring about new challenges for these regimes. The case of Telegram not only presents the ongoing clashes between non-democratic states and users who struggle to access free flows of information but also highlights important issues about platform independence, alternative commercial models of platform development, and the future of platform surveillance across various political contexts.
How and why did you decide to collaborate?
Azadeh: I was writing a paper for the journal of critical geography Antipode and had a very long section on Telegram as a case study. The section sadly had to be cut out due to the word limit despite all the time I had put into my research. This was concurrent with the call for papers on platform surveillance in the journal of Surveillance & Society. I already had talked about Telegram with Rashid in the 8th Biennial Conference of Surveillance Studies Network and it seemed to be a great opportunity to build on something that I already have researched. I also found the similarities and divergences between Iran and Russia very interesting and since I had attended Rashid’s talk in Aarhus, I was confident that this would be an exciting collaboration.
Rashid: I find the SSN to have been an incredible platform for meeting other scholars and establishing important contacts. I had the pleasure of meeting Azadeh in Aarhus, we had a brief chat on the issue of platform surveillance, but that was enough to see that we are passionate about the same topics. After the conference, and amid the intriguing internet control-related developments in both Iran and Russia, I was happy to have received an email from Azadeh with a proposal to write a paper together. This was a great opportunity to combine our perspectives and cover two countries in one paper.
How did you proceed in your collective writing?
Rashid: We sent an abstract to Surveillance & Society Journal and it was accepted. After that, weeks and months of collective writing followed. We deliberately tried to use Telegram as an app on which we communicated with each other, for symbolism. Sometimes the app would fail us technically, and we would joke that this is the result of our writing. But everything was fine after all. We divided the tasks, we also made sure to check each other’s writing and we respected all the deadlines we set for our team.
Azadeh: It was a very smooth and friendly process. It turned out that we are both very punctual and organised people (maybe even too much!). Working on Google documents was not a very anti-surveillance decision but it definitely made our lives easier!
What was the most challenging aspect of writing together?
Rashid: Negotiating the direction of the paper and establishing the argumentation was, of course, a challenge. When you are the sole author of the paper you are free in the sense that you establish the direction of your paper, which is, of course, subjected to peer-reviews and advice from other reviewers, supervisors, etc., but you are working by yourself in the end of the day. In collaborative work, there is room for contestations, negotiations and compromise. However, these challenges are also opportunities. I believe that our paper only benefited from the strict collective scrutiny and contestation of what components should or should not make it into the final draft.
Azadeh: For me, the most challenging part was holding a conversation via Skype or Telegram. Sometimes I felt that I have been criticising our work for a good 15 minutes and I was afraid that I would sound too dry, despite the fact that I was actually enjoying the collective writing process. In Germany, it is very common to frankly state an opinion and without the reassurance of a physical presence, critical comments might be received as impolite or careless. I think Rashid and I both have spent a large part of our professional life in international environments and this was key in a very honest and professional collective work despite the problems of long-distance calls.
Would you recommend a collaboration between Candidates? Why (not)?
Azadeh: Absolutely! Although I think it is very important to have a common outlook and experience. I really learned from Rashid; especially his meticulous attention to detail gravely benefited our project. This was my first academic paper after 8 years and I found Rashid’s previous experience in publishing absolutely helpful.
Rashid: Yes, definitely! I would recommend connecting with other PhDs and writing together for the sake of the diversity of outlooks. However, establishing the right working dynamic between the collaborators is fundamental. It is not a competition, but is an environment of trust and mutual support. You are a team and you have the same objective. In collaboration you learn so much from each other!
The authors would like to express their sincere gratitude to the peer-reviewers and to the Surveillance & Society Journal. Additional gratitude is expressed to Glenna Jenkins for her incredible editorial inputs. Azadeh receives funding from the Hans-Böckler-Stiftung, the research and educational arm of the Confederation of German Trade Unions. She is very grateful to all the workers for their contribution, which makes her research possible. Rashid’s project is supported by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO project number 276-45-004). He is grateful to his colleagues at the MAPS Research Cluster.