Disinformation has found a crack in Telegram through which to avoid the moderation of Facebook or Twitter since its groups with more than 200,000 members and its channels with unlimited users allow any content to be uploaded without a filter.
It is key in the war in Ukraine, both to inform civilians of which evacuation routes to use and to spread false viral videos in record time. And, in Brazil or the United States, far-right groups have entrenched themselves in the app, which allows them to build community and more effectively entrench their conspiracy theories.
Telegram is the fourth most popular messaging application in the world, with 550 million users in 2021, according to the specialized social media companies We Are Social and Hootsuite, surpassed by WeChat (1.2 billion), Facebook Messenger (1.3 billion) and WhatsApp (2,000).
WHAT DIFFERENCES IT FROM OTHER PLATFORMS?
Telegram allows groups of more than 200,000 people, while Signal limits them to 1,000 and WhatsApp to 256. Their channels - public or private - can also have an unlimited audience and information circulates in a unidirectional way, like a wall of publications that does not allow response.
" This combination of characteristics makes Telegram have a lot of potential to spread information, both propaganda and disinformation as well as information that meets journalistic integrity standards," Iria Puyosa, senior researcher at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), explains to EFE Verifica.
The company is opaque when it comes to content moderation. On its website it refers only to illegal content, such as pornography or terrorism, which it regulates in public chats and channels, not in private ones, but it does not specify if it has any tools to combat disinformation.
Unlike WhatsApp, it does not limit the forwarding of messages, nor has it adhered to the European Union (EU) Code of Practice on Disinformation, unique in the world and which establishes commitments by the platforms against disinformation that they have signed. Google, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok or Microsoft.
SHELTER IN TELEGRAM
The laxity in moderation and the fight against misinformation has caused disinforming groups to take refuge in Telegram, where they have found a space in which to share their content more massively, especially after the closure of other alternatives such as Parler at the beginning of 2021.
The DFRLab analyzed 6,000 US channels and chats on Telegram and profiled 11 communities with a large number of followers that fed on conspiracy theories or disinformation about the pandemic and vaccines, most located on “ the extreme right of the political spectrum”.
Puyosa explains that the chats associated with the channels -parallel groups with members of the same channel- and the ease of reacting with emojis favor " the construction of communities on Telegram " and encourage conspiracy theories, " because only people inclined to believe in those theories they subscribe."
Since Telegram does not force administrators to identify themselves with a real name and does not have efficient controls to sanction identity theft, " it is easier to generate conspiracy bubbles," he adds.
In Brazil , large right-wing channels on Telegram grew by 42% in 2021, according to the specialized technology medium Núcleo, while President Jair Bolsonaro 's channel soared by 145% and sets the standard for the network's weight in the presidential elections of 2022.
A judge of the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) of Brazil came to block the application in March, considering that it had not taken the necessary measures to prevent the spread of false information and unblocked the order after falsehoods published by Bolsonaro, among others, was withdrawn. "judicial determinations".
KEY IN THE UKRAINE WAR
These right-wing groups that spread false information about covid-19 around the globe are now recycling old narratives to misinform the war in Ukraine, such as that the Western elite that created the pandemic has also caused the conflict. In turn, Telegram, very popular in Ukraine and Russia, has become another front.
" Telegram could be the most important application of the war," says Lukas Andriukaitis, Associate Director of the DFRLab, by email to Efe Verifica.
" Both the Kremlin and the Russian opposition are forced to use Telegram, as the vast majority of Western media have cut off access," he adds. That makes ordinary Russian people, “ but also Russian government disinformation channels, dependent on this platform,” she adds.
Meanwhile, " on the other side of the barricades, Ukrainian government officials rely on Telegram to gain support, give warnings to civilians and mobilize citizens," he concludes.
EFE Verifies has verified how disinformation repeatedly jumps from Telegram channels to other platforms such as Facebook or Twitter in a matter of minutes.
DOCUMENT WAR CRIMES
But in the digital trenches of Telegram, another battle is also being waged: that of documenting war crimes that can help the International Criminal Court (ICC) to convict them. That's the work they do at DFRLab or Bellingcat, an investigative journalism organization specializing in digital verification and open-source intelligence (OSINT) techniques.
Giancarlo Fiorella, a researcher at Bellingcat, explains to EFE Verifica that they spend " the day on Telegram, watching news channels there ", working "to identify cases of damage to civil infrastructure and damage to civilians who have been injured or killed in the war ”.
Working with Telegram allows them to better preserve material that evidences war crimes than with other social networks, such as videos shared on local channels of the platform by citizens besieged by the conflict.
Bellingcat has already registered 800 incidents of violations against civilians or civil infrastructure, with the hope that " 5, 15 or 20 years from now, they will help us feed if a case is opened at the ICC", concludes Fiorella.
Iria Puyosa, senior researcher at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab).
Lukas Andriukaitis, Associate Director of the DFRLab.
Giancarlo Fiorella, researcher at Bellingcat.
Behind closed doors: disinformation in messaging services. Ann Cathrin Riede , of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.
Digital 2022 Global Overview Report, We are Social and Hootsuite.