"What Hath God Wrought?" read the first telegram, sent by the new technology's inventor, Samuel Morse.
Today, 177 years hence, the apt question regarding the messaging app Telegram might be: What hath man wrought?
Because Telegram has become just the latest landing spot for far-right extremists exiting (or ejected from) Facebook, Twitter or other more mainstream social media sites after the MAGA mob stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
His site's 25 million new users represent "the largest digital migration in human history," Telegram's founder, Pavel Durov, told the New York Times.
The majority of new users are not American, and the majority are not radicalized. But some are part of a growing global cohort of extremists that has officials worldwide concerned about a concentration of conspiracy theorists, racists and other ideologues who use Telegram's encryption and lax oversight much in the same way ISIS took to Telegram to marshal its malevolence.
"There's an extremist land rush taking place right now on social media where extremists and conspiracy theorists of all types are heading for the hills and trying to find refuge with any sites that will have them," said Andy Carvin, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab.
"This land rush is making them more unpredictable," Carvin continued. "In the short term this great dispersal of all of these individuals and extremist groups into the social media wilderness very likely disrupted potential activities that could have targeted the inauguration."
But the threat isn't over, according to the Department of Homeland Security, which on Wednesday issued an extraordinary warning that "some ideologically motivated violent extremists with objections to the exercise of governmental authority and the presidential transition, as well as other perceived grievances fueled by false narratives, could continue to mobilize to incite or commit violence."
Some extremists tapping into Telegram haven't hidden their hate. Enrique Tarrio, the leader of the Proud Boys, wrote, "Welcome, newcomers, to the darkest part of the web."
Yet the same site shines a light on repressive regimes in places like Iran, where Telegram takes up 60% of the internet bandwidth. Or Belarus, where Telegram was the only site evading the crush of "Europe's last dictator," Alexander Lukashenko, whose brutal rule was extended when he claimed victory in an August presidential election that most Belarusians believe was stolen.
Or in Russia, where Telegram and other sites were deployed in demonstrations spanning more than 100 cities. There, thousands demanded the release of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was arrested after his courageous return to face a government that allegedly poisoned him with Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent.
But it was the Soviet-era KGB agent-turned-president, Vladimir Putin, who seemed unnerved by Navalny's following, which was amplified by more than 100 million watching "Putin's palace," Navalny's viral video revealing (and reveling in) the kleptocratic excess of a $1.3 billion Black Sea lair Putin reputedly uses.
Compared to the decades required for dissident books like Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago" to reach Soviet citizens, Navalny's searing, satirical video broke through to Russians (77% of whom told Gallup government corruption was "widespread") in an internet instant.
Putin has repeatedly refused to even mention Navalny's name, but during a video visit on Tuesday with Russian students he felt compelled to deny ownership of the palace. And to the pols and execs at this Wednesday's World Economic Forum, Putin put his feelings about the power of social media bluntly by saying: "These are no longer economic giants — in some areas they are already de facto competing with states."
And yet the Russian state itself doesn't just compete, but controls with some of the same media.
"Russia controls the vast majority of mainstream media outlets online and offline," Carvin said. "So if the Putin regime has a particular spin they want to make on any given topic it's just a matter of time before they have that narrative spread."
That mastery of media eluded the Egyptian regime 10 years ago this week, when the Arab Spring movement hit full flower in Tahrir Square. Those heady days led to the head of Egypt's government, President Hosni Mubarak, yielding power. But a decade hence, an even more repressive regime led by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi — whom former President Donald Trump called "my favorite dictator" — has cracked down on nearly all dissent, including digital.
It's part of a broader trend of Mideast regimes catching up to the technology used to topple leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, but now often deployed to ensnare dissidents.
Social media didn't cause the social upheaval. It reflected it. Underlying the uprisings were "profound structural factors that came together and made this situation very explosive," said Charles Thépaut, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Speaking from France, Thépaut said that "social media played a role in organization and the narrative in some parts of societies, but these revolutions were really about the junctions between different groups that were angry but isolated."
Social media broke down some of the isolation. But the anger is still stirring. "One can argue that the root causes are even bigger now," said Thépaut. "So I don't expect the tension socially, politically, to go down, so social media will keep being a platform where people will express that one way or another."
Only now it's a platform that's been co-opted by the corrupt rulers in the region.
The Arab Spring protests proliferated "at a unique moment in time when the protesters knew a hell of a lot more about how social media worked than any of these governments," said Carvin, who covered the events as a reporter. "These regimes didn't know how to respond except with physical brute force and blunt tools like unplugging the internet, which didn't really work either."
Indeed, unplugging won't work, although a new worry, as described in a New York Times analysis, are social networks going off the traditional grid by adopting design elements of Bitcoin, making them "much harder to control."
Regarding social media, "the context matters a lot," said Darrell M. West, the vice president and director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. It's "a dual-use technology that can be used for good or ill. It makes it difficult for policymakers. We want to encourage the positive uses and discourage it from leading to violence."
America, Carvin said, "is reaching a point where we are going to have to make up our minds as a country" on these and other related issues.
But coming to consensus on the dual use of social media would be doubly difficult given the divisions in the country. And yet as evidenced by its influence in Cairo a decade ago, the Capitol a few weeks ago, and the Kremlin a few days ago, it's a profound issue.
But ultimately, this issue is more about ethics than tech.
After all, the impact of the Morse Code was fleeting. The moral code, conversely, endures.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.