Fact-checkers in Ukraine, Germany and India were already contending with the spread of mis- and disinformation on the encrypted messaging app Telegram. Then the app’s popularity got a huge boost in early 2021 following the deplatforming of former U.S. President Donald Trump, and the proliferation of misinformation about rival messaging platform WhatsApp’s changing terms of service
In Germany, fact-checking organization Correctiv uncovered a large-scale disinformation campaign organized by a network of roughly 650 Telegram groups spread across the country. The members of these groups printed and distributed to people’s mailboxes nearly 200 fliers containing COVID-19 misinformation.
“After we published our report, we got even more people saying, ‘I also had this leaflet in my postbox and there was a lot of information about not getting the vaccine and all this stuff,’” said Alice Echtermann, fact-checking team lead at Correctiv.
Echtermann said Telegram became more popular in Germany following the rise of misinformation about COVID-19 early on in the pandemic and opposition to the government’s public health measures. She said some were drawn by the platform’s relatively hands-off approach to content moderation compared to its larger counterparts.
“There was a dynamic that WhatsApp, for example, limited the possibility to forward messages so many times, and Facebook and YouTube reacted to the spreading of COVID-19 misinformation with deleting stuff,” Echtermann said “And so many people migrated to Telegram because they said, ‘Oh, on Telegram we are free. Nobody is censoring what we say.’”
Echtermann said the ease with which groups can organize these coordinated disinformation campaigns undetected presents a problem for fact-checkers.
“You cannot use something like CrowdTangle for example,” said Echtermann, citing a tool that allows journalists and others to monitor social media, “so on Telegram, it’s really like sorting everything by hand, which can be very annoying. But we think we have to do it because there is something going on there.”
Yuliia Zhaha, a fact-checker with the Ukrainian fact-checking organization VoxCheck, said accounts that spread falsehoods on more popular platforms like Facebook are switching over to Telegram to avoid the scrutiny of fact-checkers.
“After we started marking their posts, they began to be irritated,” Zhaha said. “That irritation might have prompted them to switch platforms.” Ukraine has a large number of anonymous Telegram channels spreading political disinformation in the country. Zhaha said this makes it difficult for fact-checking organizations with limited resources to keep up.
“I think that for now, we do not have enough people to monitor anonymous Telegram channels,” Zhaha said. “The turnaround of messages there is so big that we have to consider costs and benefits because some of the rumors fade away quickly.”
Rajneil Kamath, publisher of the Indian fact-checking outlet Newschecker.in, said users who’ve been deplatformed in India will use Telegram as a way to broadcast coordinated misinformation to groups that can then be spread to more popular platforms.
“So coordination of Twitter trends, coordination of what to spread — the content farms are making and pushing out the content because there’s no capping on the number of members in a group,” Kamath said. He added that while Telegram is less prominent in India compared to WhatsApp, fact-checkers can benefit from monitoring the channels of well-known spreaders of falsehoods on other platforms.
“Sometimes we could stay ahead of the curve in terms of what is being discussed in these groups and what is being shared,” Kamath said. “Before it starts spreading to other platforms, we’re able to detect it and nip it at its source.”
The growth of encrypted messaging apps like Telegram drew concern from researchers worried the proliferation of groups spreading misinformation to less monitored platforms will make false narratives like QAnon more difficult to track.
Following reporting that groups associated with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol were using Telegram to reorganize, founder Pavel Durov posted on Telegram about the platform’s efforts to crackdown on extremism.
“The team continues to process reports from users in addition to proactively removing content that directly incites violence,” Durov wrote. “Telegram welcomes political debate coming from all sides of the political spectrum — but will act swiftly to stop those who incite people to inflict harm on others.”