As social media giants like Facebook, YouTube, Reddit, and Twitter try to oust extremists, and web-hosting services toss some of the biggest propaganda purveyors like Parler, the quickly growing Telegram platform is becoming an alternative hub for disinformation.
Telegram is a cloud-based instant-messaging service founded by Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov. While the platform has only 500 million monthly active users in comparison to WhatsApp’s 2 billion, Telegram has earned a distinct reputation. From Islamic or Western far-right extremists to freedom fighting protesters in Belarus, Telegram is known for its strict privacy standards and independence from government control, even in authoritarian-led countries like Russia and Belarus. While its relatively small number of subscribers may lead some analysts to dismiss the platform as benign, it provides a megaphone for users who would be – or already have been — banned from other platforms for messaging deemed, rightly or wrongly, to be harmful.
Telegram allows peer-to-peer messaging and the creation of “channels” that allow users to reach a large number of subscribers simultaneously. Both Islamic and far-right extremists have used Telegram channels to disseminate propaganda they use to advance their political agendas. Among the most harmful types of such communication is what’s known as “propaganda by the deed” or “propaganda of the deed.”
Propaganda by the deed is an old tactic dating to anarchists in late 19th century Europe that glorifies specific actions. Acts of terror committed by ISIS, for example, were exalted by extremists as the most meritorious acts individuals could commit to advance the cause of Islam. These acts were used not only to terrorize Western society, but also to inspire further attacks among Islamic extremists. Likewise, far-right extremists are pivoting to Telegram to amplify their messaging, including by seizing on acts of terror, such as the March 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand, to encourage further violence. In another instance, the founder and leader of the alleged neo-Nazi group The Base used Telegram recently to post letters of commendation showing he once worked in intelligence analysis for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Before the FBI arrested Edward Lang, one of the self-proclaimed “patriots” who stormed Capitol Hill and proclaimed the riot the “Second American Revolution,” he had utilized the Telegram platform in the 10 days following Jan. 6 to try to organize far-right paramilitary members into further acts of insurrection and revolt against the incoming Biden administration. In that sense, it seems to be the American version of the “propaganda of the deed” tactic used by the Islamic State only a few years ago.
Amplifying Political Agendas
Telegram channels are also utilized to amplify political agendas. Since the post-Jan. 6 shutout of Parler by Amazon, Apple and Google (it has since resurfaced with another web hosting service), an increasing number of pro-Trump channels are cropping up in Telegram. As a result, the verified channel of Donald Trump Jr. as well as Donald Trump’s unverified channel, both have 1 million subscribers now.
In Ukraine, after President Volodymyr Zelensky and his cabinet came to power, several Telegram channels began publishing what they claimed was insider information, sowing seeds of doubt about the new Ukrainian government. Claiming to be political insiders, the anonymous authors of Telegram channels gained popularity and influence as trusted sources, even for mainstream media outlets, despite assertions that were often lies. Even politicians in Zelensky’s party spoke on condition of anonymity about the channels occasionally.
What’s even more disturbing is that some Ukrainian journalists surmise that, in all likelihood, the majority of these channels originate in Russia, with the aim of exerting influence in the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. The Ukrainian Security Service recently exposed this connection between channels and Russian intelligence agencies.
But these powerful social media tools often are wielded by noble actors as well. In Belarus, Telegram amplified the voices of otherwise suppressed protesters fighting for their right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly and against suspicious re-election results that ostensibly gave autocrat Alexander Lukashenko another presidential term. Under his quarter century of authoritarian rule, independent media outlets were all but silenced and Telegram became the sole independent source of information for many Belarusians.
Because of the platform’s known influence, the 2020 Belarusian protests against electoral fraud were dubbed a “Telegram Revolution,” and the platform continues to help Belarusians coordinate mass protests that otherwise appear to have no clear leadership. Moreover, Telegram channels provide media coverage of the protests to a global audience. Its most successful channel, NEXTA, has accumulated 1.8 million new subscribers last year.
Dangerous Practices for Noble and Nefarious Causes
Even with a justified cause of fighting for freedom, abuse can still take place. Telegram has served as a useful platform to help Belarusians fight police violence towards protestors, which has intensified since the beginning of the year. Riot police officers obscure their identities out of fear of public condemnation. Belarusian hackers, however, are actively engaged on the platform to fight back by leaking officers’ identities, i.e. publishing names and sometimes clarifying their involvement in suppressing free speech. One of the dangerous implications of this practice is that it may, according to Apple, incite further violence against those engaged in the suppression.
As a powerful platform, Telegram users can wield its capabilities not only for righteous purposes, but also for nefarious ones. Terrorists operating in the name of Islam, for instance, have used not only Telegram’s encrypted messaging features, but also its file-sharing capabilities to store and distribute propaganda. Had Telegram’s cryptocurrency launched and not been blocked by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, it could have been utilized to covertly finance terrorism. Moreover, a 2019 BBC News investigation discovered Telegram was used to distribute child abuse images.
The platform professes to actively combat child abuse, terrorism, and now far-right extremism. But by virtue of Telegram’s privacy assurances, designed to hide protesters’ activity from authoritarian governments, it can also be used and abused to hide any activity, including malicious actions.
Whether used as a tool of constructive political resistance and social mobilization or abused as a megaphone to spread disinformation and illicit content to wider audiences, Telegram is a growing force in the social media universe. The technology behind the platform is by definition neither noble nor nefarious, but it is nonetheless an increasingly powerful medium. Any proponents of fact-based information should be aware of it, or they ignore it at their peril.
IMAGE: An activist of the Vesna (Spring) youth movement fills a bag with two thousand paper planes, as a symbol of Telegram, during a flash-mob near the Roskomnadzor building in Saint Petersburg on April 13, 2018, as they protest the blocking of the popular messaging app “Telegram” in Russia, after it refused to give state security services access to private conversations. The ruling follows a long-running battle between authorities and Telegram, which has a reputation for securely encrypted communications, as Moscow pushes to increase surveillance of internet activities. (Photo by OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP via Getty Images)