Is the disappearing message app a good way to communicate as Governments and employers crack down?

UPDATE: Since we published this, Snapchat changed it’s terms of service to allow it to save, modify and republish your private photos. Snapchat is great for outreach and publicity, but no use for anything secure.

The Snowden revelations about UK and US Government illegal spying programmes should be cause for concern for all activists: GCHQ and the NSA monitor almost everything that happens on the internet, including people’s intimate, private communications.

You can add us on Snapchat by searching for "unionsolidarity" or scanning our ghost from within the app

You can add us on Snapchat by searching for “unionsolidarity” or scanning our ghost from within the app

In the UK, we already know about state collusion with blacklisting companies: in a shocking criminal conspiracy, major construction companies put trade union activists on a secret blacklist – with the help of the police – and denied them work. And that was in the days before we had mass internet surveillance.

Now the UK Government is trying to crack down even further on trade union activists with the new Trade Union Bill. In addition to making it much harder to organise legal industrial action, the Tories also want the police to monitor what people say on social media. In a mind-bogglingly ridiculous move, trade unions will have to submit tweets and Facebook status updates for approval two weeks in advance!

Clearly the government is scared of social media.

We need to fight the trade union bill, and we need to get serious about security. We should be using encrypted text and PGP-protected emails to communicate. This is pretty easy to set up, but people just don’t do it: it’s too much hassle.

Which makes me thinking we should start using Snapchat.

One truth about political activism is that when people launch a campaign, they use the tools they are familiar with. That is why Facebook and Twitter were so influential in the Arab Spring. They are not necessarily great tools – Facebook in particular is a security nightmare, and it’s easy enough for the state to shut them down – but people used them because they were familiar with them.

Facebook is 10 years old now. Its young users grew up, and started posting pictures of their weddings and children. It’s still huge, and demographically it’s where most trade union members are – but young people have moved on.

What is Snapchat?

Snapchat is primarily a mobile phone based messaging app, and its great innovation is that the messages disappear with seconds of being seen.

That’s it: gone forever, no digital footprint.

Snapchat is huge. It has around 200 million active users, the vast majority of them under 25. In fact, it is often considered impenetrable to anyone over 30, as this article by a 32-year old senior technology writer laments.

It’s not that complicated, and it’s a response to privacy concerns – young people don’t want a throwaway comment on social media to haunt them at a job interview 10 years down the line.

Snapchat’s security isn’t perfect, and you can save the messages by taking screenshots (this notifies the sender) or photographs, but by default it’s a lot more secure than any other common messaging app.

Here’s what Snapchat can do:

  1. Send text messages, which disappear within (at most) 10 seconds of being received
  2. Send pictures, which can be annotated with text, emojis or geofilters (city, local temperature etc.)
  3. Share images or articles found elsewhere on the net
  4. Send video messages (which can also be annotated)
  5. Post any of the above to a “story”, visible to anyone for 24 hours
  6. Have a live, private video chat

The disappearing messages are actually quite fun, and give a Mission Impossible sense of importance to your organising!

News channels have started creating Snaps, and there are plenty of young people around the world today who are getting all their information from Snapchat. Not from TV news, not from a newspaper, not even from Facebook or Twitter, but from an ephemeral messaging app.

Here’s a Vine I recorded of our Snapchat today. By tapping the screen, I can skip to the next message:

Snapchat isn’t secure

Snapchat isn’t a substitute for proper online security. It can be monitored. If you’re doing serious organising or political work, get your activists to use TextSecure and provide some training in InfoSec.

Here is a good resource from EFF on the relative safety of various apps.

But Snapchat is still a lot more private than using Facebook or Twitter – partly because the messages disappear and can’t be forwarded, and partly because it’s still fairly obscure: most bosses won’t be able to figure out how to monitor it.

So it allows us to create a semi-private channel that’s ideal for sending campaign updates to workers.

So how could a union use Snapchat?

Snapchat doesn’t have the reach of Facebook or Twitter – that’s not its point – but it has an intimacy that other, more public social networks don’t have. You’re not broadcasting to the masses with Snapchat, you’re having a conversation about your day. Because it’s designed for privacy, Snapchat allows us to communicate with people beneath the bland, publicly palatable social media profile.

Here’s an example of where I think it would work:

You have an organising campaign in an industry with a lot of young, precarious and vulnerable workers. It could be fast food, a cinema chain, or a call centre. They can’t be seen talking to trade union activists, or reading flyers handed out to them.

The union creates a Snapchat account specific to the campaign, run by someone who updates it every day – a lead organiser, or one of the workers who is already a member. Campaign updates are posted as a “story”, that anyone can access for 24 hours. The story can include short videos, and links to websites and so on.

You can tell workers about the account by printing out Snapchat ghosts like the one above – by scanning the ghost with their phone, they can follow the account and live updates of the campaign.

They can also securely send messages back, asking for support or advice.

Of course, the boss can scan the code and follow the account too – but the confusing, impenetrable nature of the app means they probably won’t be figure out how. It’s like a secret tech language only the young understand!

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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