Geopolitics

The World's Social Media Alternatives To Facebook And Twitter

Whether governments exercising control or protest movements needing a boost, upstart social media platforms matter in places like Russia, Poland and India.

Telegram is one of many apps used in recent protests
Telegram is one of many apps used in recent protests
Hannah Steinkopf-Frank

In the United States, the social media application Parler was the platform of choice for the insurrectionists behind the Jan. 6 capital mob. While the app has been taken off the main servers and app stores (though it is now back online), social movements on all sides of the political spectrum worldwide are trying to leave behind mainstream tech giants like Facebook and Twitter. While some activists and protestors are looking for a place to organize without government surveillance and censorship, politicians are also looking to local alternatives to cement their power.

A wave of new right-wing sites in Poland

Not one but three new social media companies have grown in popularity in Poland, where the populist national government is attempting to "protect freedom of expression on the internet" while combating so-called "political correctness."

  • As reported in Le Monde, the Albicla platform was started last month with support from the far-right and pro-government newspaper Gazeta Polska. Its goal is to provide a "free and patriotic discussion forum, devoid of any censorship" and its slogan in English is "Let AlBiCla," a riff on "Let All Be Clear." The platform currently has only 10,000 users, but those notably include the President of the Republic, Andrzej Duda, and many ministers.
  • Polfejs, a sort of failed Polish Facebook that first came around in 2017, decided to relaunch with around 17,000 members. This year has also seen the emergence of Wolni Slowianie, a social network started by a group of right-wing survivalists. Using pseudonyms and wearing hoods, they announced their arrival on YouTube.
  • Inspired by their American counterparts, right-wing movements in Poland have denounced what they call freedom of speech suppression by Facebook and Twitter, which temporarily removed many of their accounts and pages in 2016. In a recent Facebook post, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki wrote, "Social media cannot act as if it is above the law. Therefore we will do all we can to set out a framework for the functioning of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other similar platforms."

Russian app with tight security goes global

Since 2013, instant messaging app Telegram has become a crucial means of end-to-end encrypted communications, most recently in its home country of Russia with protestors organizing rallies in support of opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

  • Russian brothers and coders Nikolai and Pavel Durov created Telegram, which is currently headquartered in London and Dubai. It has been used by activist movements around the world, including in Hong Kong, Thailand and Iran. Last year, the platform was an essential tool for Belarusians protesting against President Alexander Lukashenko.
  • Russian officials attempted to block Telegram in 2018, but the site was still accessible and this ban was overturned last year. The app is particularly popular because it can often still function during internet outages, a popular move to quell protests.
  • With Navalny now sentenced to three and a half years in prison, his former chief of staff and close ally Leonid Volkov is using his Telegram channel to call for mass protests. They are using #ЛюбовьСильнееСтраха ("Love is Stronger than Fear"), according to Russian news site Meduza.

Protestors holding up their phones in Hong Kong — Photo: Miguel Candela/SOPA Images/ZUMA

The app requiring no internet powers #BlackLivesMatter

Bridgefy, created by a San Francisco-based start-up, facilitates communication using Bluetooth, which is particularly useful when authorities have curtailed internet access.

  • Relying on what's called a mesh network, users can chat privately with their contacts as well as broadcast a message to anyone within Bluetooth range. Bridgefy became incredibly popular during the 2019-2020 anti-extradition Hong Kong movement; it also saw a large spike in downloads during summer 2020 #BlackLivesMatter protests around the United States.
  • Jorge Ríos, who is the CEO and a co-founder of Bridgefy, writes in Rest of World that they had created the app for education and messaging purposes. Bridgefy first gained success in 2017 during Hurricanes Irma and Harvey and the earthquake in Mexico, as people could still communicate despite internet outages.
  • Ríos also writes that they did not plan for the app to have a political purpose, but "you do not decide what your product is, how people are going to use it, or what value you're going to bring. Your users do."

Indian officials turn to a Twitter alternative

Koo, a microblogging platform, is seeing a growth in Indian government official users following Twitter's refusal to block some 257 tweets, accounts and a hashtag about the recent large-scale protests by farmers.

  • These demonstrations started last year over three farm acts passed by the Indian parliament. Claiming that Twitter allowed for the spread of misinformation, the Ministry of Electronics and IT, the National Institute of Electronics and Information Technology and entities including Digital India (a government campaign) and India Post (the postal system) have all flocked to Koo, as reported in The Wire.
  • Entrepreneurs Aprameya Radhakrishna and Mayank Bidawatka launched Koo in March 2020 "for Indians to share their views in their mother tongue and have meaningful discussions." Created as part of a government-sponsored start-up challenge, it now has over a million active users.
  • Twitter blocked and then unblocked content and accounts, which included a politician with the Communist Party of India and a farm organization. Twitter said it told representatives of Narendra Modi"s government that the material was newsworthy and represented free speech.
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Future

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.


But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

commons.wikimedia.org

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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