“How Telegram Became the Anti-Facebook”
WIRED, February 8, 2022
By Darren Loucaides
“Hundreds of millions of users. No algorithm. No ads. Courage in the face of autocracy. Sound like a dream? Careful what you wish for.”
On January 6, 2021, as a crowd of Donald Trump supporters began gathering for a rally near the foot of the Washington Monument, Elies Campo was spending a poignant afternoon at his family’s home in Tortosa, Spain. January 6—the feast of the Epiphany, or Three Kings Day—is the high point of the holiday season there, when relatives visit and children open their presents. And Campo, a 38-year-old Spanish engineer who lives in Silicon Valley, had been largely stranded away from home since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. As he moved through the house, Campo was surrounded by uncles and aunts and cousins, and he got to hold a couple of their babies for the first time. His mind was about as far from the United States as it could possibly be.
That changed around 8 pm, when a friend in the US pinged to ask if Campo had seen the news out of Washington, DC. Then came an avalanche of similar messages about the mob that had just stormed the Capitol building. As Campo watched the scenes of violence unfold on his phone, a question started to eat at him: How was this going to affect his company?
Campo worked at Telegram, a messaging app and social network with a global user base of hundreds of millions. Now, as he looked around various other social media platforms, he noticed that far-right figures were posting links on those sites to their public channels on Telegram and urging their followers to join the app.
Mind racing, Campo excused himself, went upstairs to his room, and continued to scour social media platforms on his laptop and phone. Within six hours, both Facebook and Twitter had blocked Trump’s posts, and Campo watched more and more pro-Trump figures, fearful that they would be banned too, flood onto Telegram, bringing their audiences with them. Déu meu, he muttered to himself in Catalan—My God.
In the world of social media, Telegram is a distinct oddity. Often rounding out lists of the world’s 10 largest platforms, it has just around 30 core employees, had no source of ongoing revenue until very recently, and—in an era when tech firms face increasing pressure to quash hate speech and misinformation—exercises virtually no content moderation, except to take down illegal pornography and calls for violence. At Telegram it is an article of faith, and a marketing pitch, that the company’s platform should be available to all, regardless of politics or ideology. “For us, Telegram is an idea,” Pavel Durov, Telegram’s Russian founder, has said. “It is the idea that everyone on this planet has a right to be free.”
Campo shared that faith—but as Telegram’s head of growth, business, and partnerships, he also bore the brunt of its complications. In the mid-2010s, when the media began referring to Telegram as the “app of choice” for jihadists, it was Campo who fretted most about ISIS’ use of the platform. He says he often feels like an anxious parent when messaging Durov. “I’m the nag,” Campo says. What troubled him now was how the influx of insurrection-adjacent Americans would play in the media and with the business partners he had to deal with.
So he wrote a long message to Durov. “Good evening Pavel,” he recalls it opening. “Have you been looking at what’s happening in the US? Have you seen Trump is being blocked on other social networks?” He warned that the US far right’s embrace of Telegram could “potentially eclipse” a far more flattering story that was, by sheer coincidence, driving its own stampede of new users onto the platform.
Whether this is a good thing for the world is another question, one muddied by how poorly understood Telegram is, especially in the US. The vast majority of journalists still refer to it as an “encrypted messaging app.” This description unnerves many security experts, who warn that, unlike Signal or WhatsApp, Telegram is not end-to-end encrypted by default; that users must go out of their way to turn on the app’s “secret chats” function (which few people actually do); and that only individual conversations, not those among groups, can be end-to-end encrypted. For the millions of people who use Telegram under repressive regimes, experts say, that confusion could be costly.
But the term “messaging app” is itself somewhat misleading, in ways that lead many to underestimate Telegram. Over the years, the app has become a deliberate hybrid of a messaging service and a social media platform—a rival not only to WhatsApp and Signal but also, increasingly, to Facebook itself. Users can join public or private channels with unlimited numbers of followers, where anyone can like, share, or comment. They can also join private groups with up to 200,000 members—a scale that dwarfs WhatsApp’s 256-member limit. But unlike Facebook, at Telegram there is no targeted advertising and no algorithmic feed.
While Telegram has plenty of channels and groups dedicated to apolitical subjects like Bollywood movies and Miami’s tech scene, it has proven particularly well suited to activism. Its blend of private messaging and public channels makes it a perfect organizing tool: ideal for evangelizing in public and then plotting in secret. “I call it the one-two punch,” says Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University in North Carolina who studies Telegram. “You can do both propaganda and planning on the same app.”
It’s been vital to pro-democracy protesters from Belarus to Hong Kong, but the global right seems to find Telegram particularly congenial. In Germany, a movement against Covid restrictions used the app to organize huge demonstrations in central Berlin in 2020, leading to the storming of parliament’s steps by a mob of extremists, in a sinister foreshadowing of January 6. (The stated aim of some protesters was to show Trump that they were ready for him to liberate Germany from a deep-state conspiracy.) In Brazil, far-right president Jair Bolsonaro has also embraced Telegram, which has been downloaded on about half the phones in the country. Disinformation analysts warn of the danger this poses to the 2022 presidential elections there, the results of which Bolsonaro has threatened to dispute.
In the US, homegrown apps like Parler and Gab also soaked up far-right users after January 6, but both quickly flamed out, suffering catastrophic hacks and, in Parler’s case, the loss of Amazon’s web hosting. Neither had Telegram’s staying power. Soon Donald Trump Jr. began testing the Telegram waters for the outgoing commander in chief. “Big Tech Censorship is getting worse and if these Tyrants banned my father, the President of the United States, who won’t they ban?” he tweeted. The Trump movement needed a place that “respects” free speech, he said: “That’s why I joined Telegram.”
The following month, Donald Trump Jr.’s public channel reached a million subscribers. A channel named @real_DonaldJTrump—“Reserved for the 45th President of the United States” and publishing “Uncensored posts from the Office of Donald J. Trump”—was also gaining steam; it soon had more than a million subscribers. Popular Trump allies followed suit, and their channels grew rapidly, while Proud Boys, Boogaloo Boys, and QAnon groups also proliferated. According to Squire, who has tracked far-right activity on the platform since 2019, the number of American far-right users on Telegram could easily be around 10 million, which is what Durov reports as the total number of US users on the app. Squire admits, however, that the lack of transparency over the platform’s user numbers makes it very difficult to know for sure.
As sects go, Telegram is a remarkably closed one. Despite Campo’s recommendations, Durov has neither given an interview nor spoken in public for years, and employees are also, for the most part, incredibly secretive. I reached out to more than 40 people who are close to the company for this story and was ultimately able to speak with nine former and three current associates of Durov. To understand his app’s potential impact as it fast becomes one of the world’s biggest platforms, you have to understand something even more opaque than Facebook’s algorithm: the world inside Telegram.
About the Author:
Darren Loucaides is a writer based in Barcelona.