Alt-Tech & the Radical Right, Part 3: Why Do Hate Groups and Terrorists Love Telegram?

With over 300 million users globally each month, Telegram stands out as a major player in the realm of social networks and encrypted messaging services. Despite its widespread popularity, it remains less recognized in parts of North America and Europe. Its encryption capabilities have made it the preferred platform for groups such as ISIS and, more recently, white supremacist groups in the US like Atomwaffen and The Base. The platform’s blend of privacy features and public channels creates a paradox of use, raising questions about the balance between freedom and misuse.

Founded in 2013 by Pavel and Nikolai Durov, who were also behind the Russian social network Vkontakte (VK), Telegram distinguishes itself by eschewing advertisements, subscription fees, and traditional business models, relying instead on founder donations. Its primary draw, encrypted messaging, is bolstered by privacy-focused features such as self-destructing messages, end-to-end encrypted “secret chats,” and the ability to delete messages across devices, earning it a reputation for stringent privacy.

Telegram’s appeal to extremist groups is multifaceted. Public channels and private groups, capable of hosting up to 200,000 users, offer a powerful tool for spreading propaganda and recruitment, while encrypted messaging facilitates covert operations. This duality, coupled with a relatively lax enforcement of content policies, makes Telegram an attractive platform for such groups.

Innovation continues to drive Telegram’s utility for these organizations. The introduction of a “file storage” feature enables the distribution of multimedia propaganda, from e-books to terror instruction videos, creating a virtual library of extremist content. Additionally, Telegram’s chat groups serve as incubators for indoctrination, strategy discussions, and ideological reinforcement through unique “sticker” sets reflecting various extremist ideologies.

Unlike other social media giants, Telegram lacks a sophisticated algorithm for recommending channels, relying instead on public visibility through search engines and in-app search functionality. This limitation is circumvented by extremist groups through the distribution of “follow lists” and even detailed, color-coded spreadsheets ranking channels, indicating a structured effort to expand their reach.

Moreover, Telegram’s bot infrastructure automates tasks ranging from content distribution to member vetting, further enhancing its utility for organized extremist activities. Despite efforts to combat the misuse of its platform, including the removal of thousands of ISIS-related channels, Telegram’s approach to content moderation, particularly regarding white supremacist content, has faced criticism for being insufficiently proactive.

Content restrictions on Telegram vary, with the platform opting for “restriction” over outright “blocking” in some cases, leading to a continuous struggle between enforcement and evasion by users. The platform’s reliance on user reports for content moderation has also been criticized for lacking specificity and transparency, raising concerns about its effectiveness in combating extremist content.

Telegram’s balancing act between safeguarding privacy and preventing abuse highlights the challenges facing encrypted messaging services in today’s digital age. The platform’s continued evolution and its responses to these challenges will be critical in determining its role as either a bastion of privacy or a facilitator of hate.

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