In the aftermath of the October 7th attacks by Hamas on Israel, heightened concerns regarding online extremism have turned the spotlight on the encrypted messaging app Telegram. A Hamas-aligned group, with a channel boasting 1.9 million followers, posted graphic images of the attacks, which were subsequently widely shared on social media. Responding to public pressure during the Israel-Hamas conflict, Telegram took a step to address the issue. However, a recent WIRED investigation reveals a nuanced reality behind the apparent measures.
Rather than outright banning or deleting channels associated with Hamas or right-wing extremist groups, Telegram opted for a different approach. The platform chose to hide these channels from users on major app stores, while they continue to exist. This maneuver, although making violative communities harder to find, does not impede their ability to spread messages, as content from restricted channels often makes its way into unrestricted ones.
WIRED, in collaboration with Jeff Allen from the Integrity Institute, conducted a thorough analysis of over 100 restricted channels and thousands of posts spanning more than two months. The channels primarily featured content related to right-wing extremism and various forms of radicalized hate. Astonishingly, most of these channels remained active even under restricted status.
Telegram’s unique features, such as unlimited subscribers in channels and a content moderation approach distinct from mainstream platforms, contribute to its popularity among extremists. The analysis further revealed that even channels restricted during monitoring continued to operate. While the number of views on restricted content dropped significantly, the channels managed to persist, sharing content across various platforms.
The investigation also delves into the role of major tech players, Apple and Google, in influencing Telegram’s moderation decisions. Both companies exert substantial influence by restricting app availability based on their terms of service, which prohibit hate speech, terrorism, and violent content. Despite these restrictions, the study found instances where users encouraged others to sideload Telegram, bypassing Google and Apple’s restrictions.
In conclusion, the WIRED investigation sheds light on the complexities of handling extremist content on Telegram. The platform’s unique features and responses to external pressures create an intricate landscape where restricted channels persist, potentially contributing to the spread of radical ideologies.
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