Messaging Apps, Encryption and the Enticement of Extreme Speech

Social and Cultural Anthropology | Academic Year 2024/2025

Below the Radar? Messaging Apps, Encryption and the Enticement of Extreme Speech

Online extreme speech and disinformation have emerged as a major problem for democratic and transitional societies worldwide. Evidence has shown that vested interest groups as well as disparate actors have engaged the affordances of Internet enabled networks to take aim against vulnerable communities, including immigrants, women, ethnic groups, religious minorities and advocates of inclusive societies. These developments have posed a threat to values of tolerance and diversity, endangering the basic foundations of human rights and dignity. In the complex mix of factors that shape extreme speech ecosystems, encrypted instant messaging services constitute a unique constellation. While encryption is commonly held accountable for conditions of evasion, its potentiality to inspire intimacy and trust is no less significant, and so are the ways it works in tandem with closed communication architecture of messaging services to enable intrusive human networks around extreme speech.

The Research Group will take this important type of Internet enabled communication for closer examination, with the goal of developing a first-of-its-kind global critical inquiry into entanglements between encryption and extreme speech. The group will approach the problem with an empirical focus on WhatsApp – an end-to-end encrypted, cross- platform messaging service owned by Meta, which has emerged as a central communication tool for a vast number of people, with more than 2 billion users and 100 billion daily messaging the world over. Based on insights from different regions and diverse contexts of use, the research group will analyze the role of encrypted messaging services in extreme speech cultures globally, and highlight the regulatory and methodological challenges they have raised for academic research and policymaking.

The research group will co-author a policy and public-focused report which is jointly commissioned by United Nations Peacekeeping.


Prof. Sahana Udupa, Ph.D.

Media Anthropology

Visiting Fellows

Cayley Clifford

Africa Check

Internationale Beziehungen

Prof. Dr. Kiran Garimella

Rutgers University

Library and Information Science

Elonnai Hickok

Global Network Initiative

Internet Governance

Prof. Erkan Saka, PhD

Istanbul Bilgi University

Communication Studies

Prof. Herman Wasserman

Stellenbosch University

Journalism, Communication Studies, African Studies