Existing Signal users might be getting more notifications than usual. “Jack is on Signal,” “Cathy is on Signal,” “Miriam is on Signal,” all pings showing phone contacts who are joining the secure messaging app.
Those pings reflect the fact that there’s been an influx of new users. Known for its end-to-end encryption and independent structure as a non-profit organization run by a foundation — not a big tech company — Signal has previously been the communication method of choice for activists, people in the hacker community, and others concerned about privacy.
Recently, it’s gone mainstream.
Recently, Facebook-owned WhatsApp — which is end-to-end encrypted using Signal’s protocols — began issuing a privacy update notification to users making clear that it is sharing user data with Facebook (which it has actually been doing for years). That’s led people to look elsewhere for a secure communications app, helped along by Elon Musk’s Jan. 7 tweet which simply stated: “Use Signal.”
Over the past three years, Signal has also been investing in more infrastructure and features to support its users. That’s a good thing: Signal first saw an increase in users in the spring as people participating in anti-racist protests around the killing of George Floyd realized how closely law enforcement was surveilling them and asking companies to hand over user data. It’s only become more popular since then. As of this writing, Signal is at the top of the Apple App Store and Google Play Store, and its two-factor authentication onboarding system even got briefly delayed Thursday because so many people were trying to sign up.
So, thinking about joining Signal? Bottom line: If you care about privacy, it’s a good idea. Here’s what you need to know.
OK, so what is Signal?
Signal is a free, privacy-focused messaging and voice talk app you can use on Apple and Android smartphones and via desktop. All you need is a phone number to join. You can text or make voice or video calls with friends, either one-on-one or in groups, and use emoji reactions or stickers just like in other apps. But there’s one big difference: Signal is actually really private.
Is the Signal app secure?
Communications on Signal are end-to-end encrypted, which means only the people in messages can see the content of those messages — not even the company itself. Even sticker packs get their own special encryption.
Signal created the encryption protocol (basically, the technical way you implement this) that other companies including WhatsApp and Skype use. Plainly put, it is the gold standard of privacy.
Is Signal really private?
Yes — and that privacy goes beyond the fact that the content of your messages is encrypted. You can set messages to disappear after certain customizable time frames. Plus, Signal collects virtually no data on its users. The only information you give the app is your phone number, and the company is even working on a way to decouple that from using Signal by making encrypted contact servers. If the police come knocking to Signal for data on its users, it says, truthfully, that it has no data to hand over.https://d
Part of the reason it collects no data is because Signal is a non-profit organization, not a for-profit company. It has no advertising, so no incentive to track users. Instead, it’s funded by grants and private investors — one of whom had a huge personal interest in making a privacy-oriented platform. Though a small group of privacy activists created Signal in 2013, it has grown in recent years. In 2018, WhatsApp founder Brian Acton donated $50 million to create the Signal Foundation, which now runs Signal. Acton got on board with the mission to make a truly private messaging service after Facebook acquired WhatsApp and Acton reportedly left the company amid clashes with Facebook over how it was eroding WhatsApp’s privacy.
Signal vs. WhatsApp (and other messaging apps).
Both Signal and WhatsApp are end-to-end encrypted using the same technology. That means the content of the messages you send and calls you have are both private. However, Facebook collects lots of other information in the form of usage statistics, metadata, and more. And there’s no longer a way to opt out. https://d-29504138532505392658.ampproject.net/2012232217000/frame.html
Signal does not have as many fancy customization features as WhatsApp, like backgrounds. But when it comes to true privacy, there is no comparison.
You can see a full list of alternatives to Facebook-owned messaging services here.
Another app rising in popularity is Telegram. Telegram says it’s also all about privacy, but it actually has plenty of downsides. Messages on Telegram are not truly end-to-end encrypted by default. Plus, the fact that private groups are unlimited in size, can be joined via a link, and are explicitly not moderated has made it a hotbed for toxic and illegal content, like terrorism and revenge porn (also known as non-consensual pornography). Signal does not moderate content either, but it limits groups to 1,000, and is more about communicating with people who are actual contacts than joining groups of strangers like on WhatsApp and Telegram.
But another Facebook page, run by twin brothers who immigrated from Mexico, reached substantially more eyes. Their reposting of Mr. Obama’s endorsement, with a simple “BREAKING” text over the video, clocked over 23 million views.
Meet Rafael and Omar Rivero, the co-founders of Occupy Democrats, the social media mavens of the left who are quickly emerging as a counterweight to the dominance of right-wing online sites.
In a presidential race playing out on iPhones and screens more than any in history, in part because of the coronavirus pandemic, these digital entrepreneurs can drive the political conversation online and influence how candidates are seen as much as a campaign’s well-funded digital advisers can.ADVERTISEMENT
The twins, 33, started the Occupy Democrats Facebook page eight years ago and, combined with an accompanying website, they have reached a digital dominance rarely seen among liberals — one that keeps pace with viral news sites and regularly outperforms President Trump’s own page, as well as the Daily Caller, Fox News and other right-wing websites or personalities. What was once a hobby between gigs has grown into a full-fledged, full-time operation with five additional staffers.
Over the past month, nearly half of the 40 top-performing videos on Facebook that mention “Trump” were from Occupy Democrats. They have had a top-10 performing post on Facebook regularly for months. A video they recently posted called “The Liar Tweets Tonight,” sung by a choir of individually recorded voters to the tune of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” was viewed 41 million times, among the most-watched videos on Facebook over the last month.
“Democratic voters are tired of the Democratic Party kind of taking barrages from Republicans on the right on social media and Trump himself, taking that lying down and not fighting back,” Omar Rivero said. “So we fight back with the truth. But we make sure that we punch them in the mouth with the truth.”
Though they claim not to have taken tactics from the right, there are some clear commonalities between the Occupy Democrats posts and some of the right-wing sites that have mastered the art of writing shareable copy that acts like gasoline on a social media outrage fire — amplified by anger-inducing adjectives contextualizing the news, or an all-caps “BREAKING” to introduce a post.ADVERTISEMENT
They also are relentless in their posting on Facebook. On Sunday, a relatively slow news day by the Trump-era pandemic standards, the Facebook page published 80 items, a mix of original, text-heavy memes; cross-posts from Mr. Biden’s social media pages; commentary with links to mainstream news stories and videos; and links to original posts on the Occupy Democrats website.
It has helped them earn 25 million more interactions than Mr. Trump’s page, and 63 million more interactions than Mr. Biden’s over the past 30 days on Facebook, according to CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned data tool.
Occupy Democrats is a rare bright spot for a party and political wing that once was proudly “the party of tech” but has since ceded nearly every digital stronghold to the right. As Mr. Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, is moving headlong into a general election with a digital operation that is dwarfed by the Trump campaign, the Occupy team has started to step in.
“I think one of the big mistakes of 2016 was not immediately embracing Hillary as a change agent and as someone to get excited about,” Rafael Rivero said.
Rafael also wanted to prove that, yes, Mr. Biden could indeed go viral.
On the same day Senator Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign, Rafael started the “Ridin’ with Biden 2020” page, employing meme tactics, social media copy and video promotion similar to those that power the central Occupy Democrats page.
An Avengers-esque meme of Mr. Biden, Jill Biden, Mr. Obama and Michelle Obama striding across the White House lawn overlaid with the text “When America Was Great” reached 2.2 million viewers.
Soon, the “Ridin’ With Biden” page was outperforming the campaign’s own account, with their own content.
A digital video ad released by the Biden campaign received more than one million views on Facebook, a successful showing for most campaigns. But on “Ridin’ With Biden,” it got 8.6 million views, with little added window dressing than text on the video that read: “Holy cow … this Biden ad is GOOD 🔥🔥🔥.”
When the Occupy page shared the live video of Hillary Clinton endorsing Mr. Biden, the live viewership jumped from 15,000 to 25,000 in a matter of minutes.
Democratic campaign operatives note that these types of booming online communities benefit from being a bit rougher around the edges.
“They’re able to say things that are not quite as polished as what the parties are going to produce or what the Biden campaign is going to produce, or any campaign,” said Kenneth Pennington, a Democratic digital strategist who was Mr. Sanders’ digital director in 2016. “But it’s kind of the unvarnished, unpolished stuff that actually does really well online because people are seeking that kind of authentic sass.”
Mr. Pennington added that these types of pages can help boost a campaign as well, crediting a different Facebook page — The People for Bernie Sanders — as one of the reasons Mr. Sanders catapulted “from a no-shot candidate into an online sensation that raised $230 million in 2016.”
While the social media dominance of Occupy Democrats may surprise some, social media experts note that there has always been a liveliness among liberal groups online, but they just get less attention.
Whitney Phillips, a media studies and communications professor at Syracuse University, said the reported distress on the left about “losing the edge on social media” wasn’t the full picture. “The framing is maybe not fully representing all of the activity and all the vibrancy that’s happening on the left because all the stories get written about what Ben Shapiro is up to,” she said, referring to the popular conservative writer.
The video of former President Barack Obama endorsing former vice president Joseph R. Biden Jr. was viewed more than 23 million times on Occupy Democrats’ Facebook page.
Occupy Democrats does try to give readers their vegetables, too. A post about Senator Mitch McConnell’s comments on the newest Democratic proposal for a coronavirus relief package, for example, included highlights from the Democratic proposal.ADVERTISEMENThttps://e9a82a00fde94b3b898e9c9acfe89e55.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html?n=0
“People clicked to be mad about McConnell, but while they read about that, they learn about what the Democrats are doing,” said Colin Taylor, the editor in chief of Occupy Democrats. “In this kind of outrage-heavy online sphere, it’s kind of hard to get people’s attention with the more wonky stuff.”
The group’s origins date to the movement that informs its name — and a dissatisfaction with it. The Rivero twins found themselves in Zuccotti Park back in 2012, when the Occupy movement had camped out in Lower Manhattan and quickly garnered a national news profile. Both brothers were drawn to the ideals of the movement — economic equality, social justice and addressing climate change — but they saw the Occupy movement’s leaderless ethos as a critical failure, and one that would never allow it to grow.
“I looked around and thought, wow, there’s not a single Occupy congressman,” Omar Rivero said. “In the end, we’re not pulling the levers of power. So I thought, well, you know, maybe we should try to make Occupy a force that not only helps Democrats but also keeps them honest. Similar to what the Tea Party is doing to Republicans.”
Omar started the Facebook page after leaving a job at an investment bank — “working for the man at a bank” — heavy in debt to both the federal government and his mother after earning an undergraduate degree from Cornell University and a master’s degree from ESCP Europe. In between side gigs cleaning short-term rental apartments, and sometimes while cleaning, he continued to build an audience. But he needed help with the visuals.
Omar turned to his twin brother, who was running his own real-estate rental business in Miami at the time, to put his graphic design background to use and join the effort.
“My mom staged an intervention, literally, with my aunt and uncle,” Rafael said. “They thought, you guys got the scholarships to Swarthmore and Cornell, and you guys are throwing all that away to focus on something called a Facebook page.”
But with Rafael making memes, the page began to grow. Quickly. The two moved to California and lived in a friend’s pool house. When the demand for content grew beyond the twins’ capabilities, they posted hiring ads on Craigslist. Mr. Taylor, a former line cook who blogged on the side, was their first hire, and the pool house soon doubled as the Occupy newsroom, now with multiple writers churning out dozens of posts a day, building both the Facebook page and the website into traffic machines.
They survived the reorientation of the Facebook algorithm after the 2016 election — which pushed down independent, less verified sites in favor of more mainstream news content — by repeatedly boosting and sharing mainstream news articles, introduced with their own spin. Though they had to lay off a few writers in the wake of those Facebook changes, they have kept churning out content.
And, of course, countless memes.
The memes and videos are what generate the most engagement, and Occupy Democrats’ white-and-yellow text on a black background both grabs the eye with its harsh color contrast and conveys a sense of urgency. Distilling the news into a single shareable photo that remains on Facebook has quickly caught on, particularly among older users.
But with this newfound power, the Rivero brothers want to expand and build a broader network with other Democrats.
“We’re not only the largest political network on Facebook, but we’re the largest partisan political network on Facebook,” said Omar. “And I think that the Democrats should take advantage of that.
His latest work is A Life Well-Lived, a selection of photos and stories of people across Nebraska highlighting their stories from the past 70 years. These are photographs and stories of those who might be forgotten in the rush of history.