As social platforms like X (formerly Twitter), Meta and TikTok face off with regulators and the theater of public opinion for how they are handling incendiary and graphic content, disinformation, writing and other media related to Hamas and Israel, Pavel Durov, the CEO of Telegram, has controversially come out to defend how his messaging app is not taking down some of the more sensitive war-related coverage that can be found there, claiming that it can prove to be an important channel for information.
He also went on to distinguish it from social media, since users only see content to which they subscribe. (Yes, that does not take into account how content posted on Telegram gets shared.)
In his Telegram post today, Durov — borrowing some of the more “high-level” language that other social media executives have used — said that “Telegram’s moderators and AI tools remove millions of obviously harmful content from our public platform,” but he also swiftly moved on to defending the app continuing to allow sensitive content under the category of “war-related coverage.”
“Tackling war-related coverage is seldom obvious.” (He does not define what the line is between “obviously harmful” and “war-related coverage.”)
“While it would be easy for us to destroy this source of information, doing so risks exacerbating an already dire situation,” he continued, citing how, he said, Hamas used Telegram to warn civilians in Ashkelon to leave the area ahead of missile strikes. “Would shutting down their channel help save lives — or would it endanger more lives?” he asked in his post today.
Durov’s comments come at a time when Telegram has most certainly been in the middle of how information has been getting out to the rest of the world, but that has not been limited to Telegram channels. In the initial hours and days of the deadly terrorist attacks, Hamas and people affiliated with it posted a number of graphic and very unedited videos of their acts on Telegram, and the app quickly became a much-cited reference point by mainstream media and many individuals posting and sharing news on other social channels, sometimes linking directly to Telegram posts, or capturing and resharing the content within them. Telegram’s role in that information dissemination has itself come under attack.
A cynical take might be that Telegram is profiting from the situation, by picking up more traffic from it. Durov noted, two days after the attack, that “hundreds of thousands” of new users were signing up for the app from Israel and the Palestinian Territories, noting that Telegram was adding support for Hebrew in its UI.
“Everyone affected should have reliable access to news and private communication in these dire times,” he said at the time.
Durov’s words and actions should not come as too much of a surprise: They are in line with the company’s previous approach to sensitive content.
Part of Durov’s defense of Telegram has always been to make a distinction between it and social media apps.
“Unlike other apps that algorithmically promote shocking content to unsuspecting people, on Telegram, users receive only the content to which they specifically subscribed,” he wrote. “As such, it’s unlikely that Telegram channels can be used to significantly amplify propaganda. Instead, they serve as a unique source of first-hand information for researchers, journalists, and fact-checkers.”
The app has previously taken a light touch when it comes to how it is used by violent individuals or groups, courting a lot of controversy in the process. It has become, for example, a go-to place for communication around the war in Ukraine, but it has also become a hotbed for misinformation, as this piece details. Resistance groups in Myanmar may be using it, but so are militants supporting the current regime, who are using it to target individuals, as this investigation by CNN showed. And its controversial place as a go-to platform for recognized terrorist groups was well-known. (Hamas is recognized by many countries, including the U.S., U.K. and Israel, as a terrorist organization.)