Published by The Lawfare Institute
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For people concerned with the human rights abuses occurring in Ukraine, the self-described encrypted messaging app Telegram is an instrument of freedom. In Brazil, the Supreme Court blocked the app, if only for two days. Telegram had ignored the Superior Electoral Court, which requested that Telegram establish legal representation in Brazil and detail how it would fend off disinformation there. (The company responded with a statement saying that it simply hadn’t been checking the correct email and missed the requests.) Telegram, given its hardline stance in defense of the freedom of speech, has courted all kinds of purveyors of “unacceptable” speech, whether they be violators of norms or laws, “bad actors,” or enemies of authoritarian states. Telegram exists in the nexus between East and West, as a breeding ground for misinformation and a battleground for democratic values. While working with those contradictions, the app has found its success. Both a social media and a messenger, encrypted and left in plain text, the app is far more dynamic than the other “free speech” social media platforms. Held together by an enigmatic CEO’s supreme faith in the freedom of speech and the ability to quickly pivot between conflicting sides, Telegram looks here to stay.
In Eastern Europe, Telegram is being utilized as a multifaceted communication tool; currently, it is being used to organize Ukrainian resistance, connect families separated by war, and share videos—or evidence to be shown at The Hague—with the outside world. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry is even asking citizens to share information on Russian troop movements—apparently, some tips have led to vehicles being spotted and destroyed. In Russia, Telegram, unlike Facebook and Twitter, remains for the moment unblocked, and pro-Kremlin sources blast out propaganda to millions of subscribers on Telegram. Of course, with the app becoming so crucial to both sides’ war efforts, it is also becoming contested terrain.
It’s never easy to find the truth or fact check, but during times of crisis or when the facts on the ground are changing rapidly, these processes get far more difficult. Predictably, propaganda is proliferating through the news and online. Separate deepfakes have been created to suggest both Zelenskyy and Putin were “backing down.” Sometimes, stories of heroes and villains such as the Ghost of Kyiv, the soldiers at Snake Island, and neo-Nazi aggressors have been hazily substantiated, exaggerated or altogether made up. The tales are echoed by heads of states, news organizations and civilians.
Telegram, given its immense popularity in the region, has hosted much of this “fake news.” In late February, Telegram founder and CEO Pavel Durov said he may shut down some channels hosting unverified information. After criticism from subscribers, he walked back this threat less than an hour later. This is perhaps unsurprising. Durov is known for changing his mind and retracting prior claims and commitments. This also makes it difficult to parse the app’s functionality and business model. As the CEO of Signal, one of Telegram’s competitors, points out, despite the company’s claim to be an encrypted messenger, most of the data it stores—including message history—is kept in plain text on its servers. Users can, however, opt into encrypting certain conversations by entering “secret chats.”
Durov prefers to take a light hand to content moderation. Born in St. Petersburg, he previously founded VKontakte.com, or VK, Russia’s largest social network. But he was unceremoniously ousted from his role at VK in February 2014, around the time Russia began its invasion of Crimea. In his—and the widely told—version of events, Durov claims he categorically refused to take down posts critical of the Russian government, hand over sensitive data on Ukrainian users who supported Kremlin-allied Viktor Yanukovych to the Russian Federal Security Service, or take down the blog of Russia’s leading oppositionist, Alexei Navalny, who has since been poisoned and imprisoned by his government. Durov fled Russia. He claimed he was “not a fan of the idea of countries.”
Since then, Durov built Telegram into a global powerhouse. Telegram is not just a messaging service; it is a social media. In the United States, where only 2 percent of, or 10 million, Telegram users reside, this messenger-as-social media service has not completely taken hold. But these amorphous services are commonplace abroad. Brazilians, for instance, use messaging services as hubs for all social networking activity: keeping up with friends; sharing pictures; debating politics; sharing news; and conducting business in the informal economy, which employs 38 million people, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics. And with Telegram’s group chats ballooning to 200,000 users and “channels” allowing users to broadcast messages to effectively unlimited audiences, the arbitrary distinctions between messaging service and social media wash away with the tides of people using—and shaping—the ecosystem.
In 2022, most mainstream social networks take a stronger stance on content moderation than Telegram does. As such, Telegram has become a haven for dangerous or otherwise objectionable speech. But “dangerous and objectionable speech” is often defined only by variable societal norms or the whims of those in power. So it seems the app has been thriving among those subverting norms and power, justified or otherwise, whether they be protesters in Hong Kong or insurrectionists in the United States.
Telegram does some content moderation, including to remain in compliance with local laws the company views as legitimate. For instance, Telegram blocked election campaign services in Russia such as the one used by Alexei Navalny’s allies to give voter recommendations. Durov stated the decision was made in response to a Russian ban on campaigning once polls are open, which is similar to bans in many other countries. In his statement to Brazil’s Supreme Court after the recent ban, he also promised to monitor the 100 most popular channels in the country, which represent more than 95 percent of the app’s public message views in Brazil.
Earlier in March, Telegram spokesperson Remi Vaughn said the platform had now barred Kremlin-backed media outlets from using its platform within the European Union, though he later elaborated that the ban currently applied only to people who had signed into Telegram with an EU-based phone number. In a similar case, due to a court order issued by the Brazilian Supreme Court, Telegram banned the channel of the fugitive and misinformation superspreader Allan dos Santos. Nonetheless, in a world in which the former president of the United States is not allowed on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or Instagram, Telegram is charting a different path.
How can Telegram successfully balance these competing equities? It turns out that Telegram’s duality—to exist both as a social media and a messaging app—is perfect for hosting “unsavory speech,” however defined, in an organic, sustainable way. Over the past few years, the increasingly radical global right has bounced among platforms that are less censurious than the Silicon Valley giants are, such as Parler, 8Chan, Gab, Gettr, Rumble, and, now, Trump’s Truth Social. Each platform has struggled for mainstream adoption. One reason is that large social media companies like Facebook benefit from preexisting economies of scale and network effects. Further, the lack of content moderation on smaller “free speech” platforms leads to reputational problems when those platforms are used to broadcast reprehensible content, such as when the Tree of Life Synagogue shooter used Gab to post antisemitic rants. Often, this unpleasantness can prove to be too much for well-meaning free speech absolutists to stomach.
Platforms that take maximalist positions on free speech also struggle with the fact that they are built atop foundational internet infrastructure whose custodians may forcibly moderate the platforms that use the infrastructure. For example, after the Jan. 6 insurrection, tech giants took down Parler, a Twitter-like social media platform that prides itself on its lack of moderation. The Apple App Store and Google Play Store each refused to distribute the app. A few days later, Amazon Web Services, which hosted the website, cut Parler off, and the platform went offline. Even without technical barriers, the “free speech” apps also struggle to obtain and maintain large user bases, in part because the content on the platforms is often largely political and one-sided. Whereas on Twitter, one’s feed may consist of news, memes, viral stories and random musings from friends, in the land of the digital political exiles, feeds skew much more heavily to the political. At a certain point, for many users, this results in a less-entertaining, or useful, product.
But on Telegram, these problems are assuaged. Telegram has a large, growing user base that is not limited to a single ideology. Its ability to help users in Ukraine and Hong Kong stage resistance to unwelcome forces has shown its utility. And though the threat of the app being removed from the Google Play Store or Apple App Store due to the disinformation it hosts theoretically looms, the app hosts its own servers, so it is not at the mercy of Amazon Web Services.
Unlike other apps, Telegram doesn’t promote much content. The reality that no algorithmic amplification occurs on the messaging service means that users are not shown sometimes-inflammatory content the platform believes will keep them scrolling but, rather, what their friends and the channels they choose to follow share. When compared to users on Facebook, Instagram, Tiktok, or Twitter, Telegram users can easily decide to find, or hide from, “undesirable” content. While it is easy for bad actors to rely on human infrastructure to recruit individuals on mainstream social media to join their hate-filled propaganda channels, it is also easy for users to steer clear of those broadcasts. The threat of receiving unsolicited forwarded hateful messages, however, remains. And, importantly, a Telegram user does not need the desire to be political to open the app; one may click on the app to text friends to make plans, only to later check in on another, more political, group chat.
At the end of the day, nations often have the last say—at least for the masses, which typically struggle to route around censorious restrictions. That’s what happened in Brazil, when the Supreme Court blocked the app after it failed to take down pro-Bolsonaro disinformation accounts or have legal representation in the country.
Any amount of censorship is likely too much for some and not enough for others. Telegram has become a haven for “unacceptable” speech, inviting the opportunities—and dangers—that come with it. It may have found a model for sustainably challenging major social media companies along the way by embracing contradiction.