Telegram describes itself as a cloud-based messaging app with a focus on security and speed, but it’s also been called a platform for white nationalists, right-wing extremists and activists. So which is it? Well, both.
Telegram was launched back in 2013 by Pavel Durov, who is sometimes referred to as the Mark Zuckerberg of Russia. As of March 2018, the platform, based in Dubai, has more than 200 million users worldwide.
It likes to brag about its security features and says it’s more secure than any other messaging app because of something called end-to-end encryption, which leaves no trace of messages on its servers. It also offers “secret chats” where the person sending the messages and the recipient are the only ones who can read them.
These privacy features have made Telegram the messaging app of choice for anyone who does not want their identity disclosed—no matter what they post. White nationalists who are no longer welcome on Facebook and Twitter have migrated to Telegram, which says it is committed to protecting freedom of expression and user privacy above all else. A study by Hatewatch found that Telegram users frequently post memes glorifying white supremacists like Dylann Roof, the shooter who killed nine people in a South Carolina church, and Robert Bowers, the man charged with killing 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue. After the El Paso mass shooting in early August, Telegram lit up with posts about the shooter’s manifesto and hate speech, Slate reports.
At the same time, pro-democracy activists, who fear censorship, are flocking to Telegram for similar reasons. The messaging app became one of the most popular downloads in Hong Kong this summer because pro-democracy activists trusted Telegram to keep their identities secret as they exchanged details about when and where to protest.
Unlike publicly traded social media companies, Telegram does not police content or censor any type of speech on its platform, including hate speech, because of its commitment to freedom of expression. It also says it does not harvest, sell or share any user data. In fact, Telegram is banned in Russia and Iran because it refuses to give any governments access to user data. “In five plus years, Telegram disclosed exactly zero bytes of private data to third-parties, including governments,” said Durov in a tweet.