Telegram: social media giant or the new ‘dark web’?


Every day, the Telegram channel Gun Shop America posts a steady stream of photographs of illicit wares for sale to its near 26,000 subscribers. Recently these included a 9mm Glock with ammunition for $500, Bolivian cocaine for $1,000 an ounce and fraudulently cloned bank cards for $5,000.

“Keep your orders coming,” the anonymous channel owner writes on his public feed, inviting his followers to message him directly to make a purchase in bitcoin or US dollars. He intersperses his adverts with photos of piles of cash and screenshots of messages of appreciation from happy customers. “Don’t sleep guys it’s Christmas around the corner let’s get on it!!!” he exclaims.

The gun shop is just one of tens of thousands of Telegram groups and channels tracked by criminology and cyber security experts. They argue that the social media app has become the new “dark web”, where lawbreakers and cyber hackers brazenly boast about and barter over illicit services without repercussions. 

“Telegram is social media for organised criminals,” says Haywood Talcove, chief executive of LexisNexis Risk Solutions’ government division, who has been tracking new means of fraud targeting US government systems that he says have gone “viral” on the platform among some hacker communities. “It’s virtually the wild west out there.”

The explosion of Telegram’s criminal underworld is just one facet of the platform’s broader, dizzying rise in recent years, from a niche messaging app to an indispensable news source and resource for organising, including in geopolitical and humanitarian crises such as the Russia-Ukraine war or Israel-Hamas conflict.

Since its founding in 2013, Telegram’s Russia-born chief executive Pavel Durov has sought to cast the platform as a privacy-orientated alternative to Big Tech platforms, one that is unassailable from government interference. It is, he insists, a censorship-resistant safe haven for citizens living in repressive regimes, such as Belarus, Iran and Hong Kong. 

Two smartphones with the Gun Shop America Telegram channel open on the screens
Gun Shop America is just one of tens of thousands of Telegram groups and channels tracked by criminology and cyber security experts

“In some markets, Telegram is one of the few remaining free platforms where people can express themselves,” Durov says. Counting Asia as its largest market, Durov says the platform has 900mn monthly active users, up from 500mn at the beginning of 2021.

Durov, 39, rarely gives media interviews; his last was in 2017. A hands-on leader, he prefers the title “product manager” to chief executive. Remarkably, Telegram has only 50-or-so full-time staff, including a team of 30 elite handpicked engineers. “No feature is launched without my deep involvement,” he says.

Thanks to new Twitter-like broadcast features and its anything-goes approach to moderation, Telegram has become a megaphone for global leaders — and strongmen. It is wielded by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, official Russian ministries, and even militant groups such as Hamas.

It also acts as a magnet for the lawless, for disinformation pushers, conspiracy theorists and extremists fleeing the tighter restrictions on rivals such as Meta’s Facebook and Google’s YouTube. Experts warn it is increasingly weaponised for propaganda by the very governments whose citizens may rely on it for information.

Headquartered in Dubai, Telegram has been able to escape much of the regulatory scrutiny and law enforcement demands that have plagued similar platforms in Silicon Valley in recent years. “In Dubai the government doesn’t bother us,” Durov says, labelling the emirate “neutral”.

But as Telegram continues to scale, monetise via advertising and gear up for a potential market debut, possibly in the US, it will face increasing pressure to tame its dark underbelly. 

900mnNumber of monthly active users at Telegram, according to its founder, up from 500mn at the start of 2021

“Investors should be worried about the criminal underworld and also the broader integrity issues at Telegram,” says Jeff Allen, co-founder and chief research officer for the Integrity Institute, a US think-tank.

As global regulators circle, “there is a bit of a rude awakening awaiting Telegram, when they are going to have to meet basic trust and safety and integrity measures that they are very far away from today,” he adds. 

In many ways, Durov is like any billionaire tech founder in Silicon Valley.

Despite having a reported net worth of $11.5bn, he religiously sports a custom-designed all-black ensemble in keeping with the dogma, ascribed to Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg, that minimalism yields extra productivity. He indulges in the typical health fads. Each morning, he says, with “no exceptions”, he wakes and embarks on 200 push-ups and 100 sit-ups before taking an ice bath. Over the years, he has insisted he is a diehard free speech libertarian. 

But setting him apart from Valley executives is his personal experience of oppression which, Durov says, laid the foundation for his vision for Telegram.

Per his telling, Durov and his brother Nikolai first developed Telegram as a “private tool” for the pair to communicate when there were no other secure messaging apps available. (Nikolai remains chief technology officer today.) The Edward Snowden revelations of mass surveillance of Americans by US intelligence prompted their decision to share the app with the public in 2013, emphasising its use as an anti-surveillance messaging platform where encryption technology is used to shield messages from the prying eyes of governments. 

However, Durov, who also co-founded Russia’s most popular social media network, VKontakte, was in 2014 forced to flee St Petersburg after he refused to share the data of certain Ukrainian users of VK with Russia’s security agency, the FSB. He sold his stake in the company to Kremlin-friendly oligarchs, which, combined with a cryptocurrency fortune, allowed him to travel and fund Telegram before settling in Dubai. 

$11.5bnReported net worth of Telegram’s Russia-born founder and chief executive Pavel Durov

In 2018, he again denied Moscow access to certain user data, prompting a ban of the platform in Russia. Embarrassingly for the Kremlin, this was circumvented by Telegram through certain technical manoeuvres. The Kremlin lifted the ban two years later, but for some, Telegram’s reputation had been cemented as a free speech app of choice, while Durov was cast as a freedom fighter with coding ingenuity.

“This trust in Telegram is a trust in Durov personally — that he will do everything to keep free speech alive personally,” says Aleksandra Urman, a researcher at the University of Zurich who has studied extremism on the platform.

The approach has helped supercharge Telegram’s growth. The app has expanded from its focus on “secret chats” to integrating dozens of new features each year, including a customisable interface, tools for sharing large files, groups of up to 200,000 members, and channels — for one-way broadcasting of messages — with unlimited subscribers. 

Internally, Durov, who sees Meta as his greatest competition, has pursued the old-school start-up mentality of “move fast and break things”. He has built a small and secretive team of engineers in Dubai by hosting online programming contests and tapping the champions, regardless of their age, location or prior experience.

A team of only seven system administrators manages more than 80,000 servers, owned by the company and distributed globally, which Durov says would typically take hundreds of people to manage. “The team didn’t have any option other than to automate things at an extreme level,” Durov explains. “As a result, we became so greatly cost efficient.”

Having raised around $2bn in debt financing in recent years, Telegram has been attempting to monetise, largely through introducing an advertising platform and subscription revenues. Durov claims it is nearing profitability after two years of trickling out its advertising offering in certain markets.

Telegram’s longer-term sales pitch is to become a one-stop shop allowing developers to build ecommerce, gaming and crypto apps into the platform, becoming one of the few mainstream companies to embrace decentralised “web3” technology.

Pavel Durov sitting at a desk with his hands interlinked
Pavel Durov has sought to cast Telegram as a privacy-orientated alternative to Big Tech platforms, one that is unassailable from government interference © Pavel Durov/Instagram

This ecosystem will be underpinned by the TON blockchain, which was initially developed by the Telegram team and drew in individual and institutional Russian investors among others, but is now developed independently of the company by an open source community, after the project ran into regulatory troubles in the US. 

Durov says he expects to reach “a billion monthly active users within somewhere between 12 and 14 months”. 

The plans come as Telegram moves towards a potential market debut, a strategy that will allow for expansion and avoids merging or selling. Durov says he believes founders should retain control to avoid “sacrificing [their] values”.

However, enticing western investors in particular may mean tackling damaging claims by critics that the Kremlin may still have links to or leverage over Telegram. They note that shortly after Russia’s abrupt unbanning of Telegram in 2020, Russian ministries and top officials raced to set themselves up on the platform.

Durov will gladly talk about his morning fitness routine but he avoids answering when asked his position on President Vladimir Putin or the Russia-Ukraine conflict. “Let’s not go there,” he says, adding that it is “very important for the world to retain Telegram as a neutral platform”.

Durov dismisses reports of Kremlin ties as “conspiracy theories”, insisting that the platform does not have any “sources of funding related to Russia”, nor offices, employees or equipment in the country. Most of its bondholders are global funds headquartered in the UK and US, he adds.

“I think for anyone who followed my story, my experiences, the series of events that made me leave Russia more than 10 years ago, it’s pretty obvious that such theories are not credible,” he says.

“Two years ago I could get very irritated and start pointing out the inconsistencies or the inaccuracies in the stories. But then I realised, it’s inevitable [as we scale]. We’ll see more stories like that, coming from all kinds of actors.”

Some bondholders are satisfied by this. “Pavel has been quite successful at disconnecting the Russian connection. He’s done all the right things,” says one, speaking on condition of anonymity. They add that Durov was “creative in coming up with new revenue streams” and has already clinched a big advertising deal. “I am very optimistic that it will be a $100bn company.”

Nevertheless, critics question whether Telegram has the proper policing to attract more mainstream advertising and investors. Research shows that the platform has become a hotbed of criminal activity.

“Telegram supports and facilitates online and offline crimes all over the world — it may be fraud, it may be gun sales, drugs sales, people sales even,” says David Maimon, professor in the department of criminal justice and criminology at Georgia State University, who has been monitoring and infiltrating thousands of Telegram criminal groups and channels since 2019, including 10,000 in the US. 

A recent report by the New York Times found Telegram was home to discussions among professed paedophiles trading information.

Durov says that Telegram actively moderates criminal activity on the public parts of the platform and removes “millions of pieces of harmful content” daily. It responds to user reports and proactively uses custom machine-learning moderation software to flag illicit content, he adds.

But some are doubtful that advertisers will be amenable to spending their social media budgets on a comparatively risky platform. “Telegram is going to really struggle to find advertisers willing to associate their brands with the large amount of toxic content on the platform,” says the Integrity Institute’s Allen, noting that advertisers have pulled millions of dollars from Elon Musk’s X for similar reasons. “The lack of integrity of the platform severely limits [Telegram’s] revenue possibilities.”

Increasingly, as Telegram has become a tool for wartime communications, so too has it become a battleground for information warfare.

Telegram is often the platform where dubious claims are seeded, researchers say, before spreading elsewhere. Propaganda is rife. As the Russia-Ukraine war has unfolded, dozens of channels sharing unverified claims and news, purportedly run by anonymous Russian government “insiders”, have become more prominent and influential.

A Hamas masked man loads a shell into a surface-to-air anti-aircraft system
Telegram has become a megaphone for global leaders but is also wielded by militant groups such as Hamas © EQB via DFRLab

It is the only platform that continues to allow Iran-linked militant groups to operate and disseminate their content, including Hamas, Hizbollah and a variety of Iraqi militia groups. The company says that channels focusing on current developments in Gaza or Ukraine have “proven indispensable for journalists, researchers, fact-checkers, and human rights organisations looking to independently evaluate these events as they unfold”.

Experts warn that Hamas and other Palestinian militants have weaponised Telegram. On October 7, during its attack on Israel, Hamas proliferated gruesome imagery and videos on the platform in what experts have called an act of psychological warfare on Israeli citizens, who had no official counter information in the invasion’s immediate aftermath.

Last month, it emerged in the Israeli press that a psychological warfare unit of the IDF, or Israel Defense Forces, had run an unauthorised Telegram Channel entitled “72 Virgins — Uncensored” that posted graphic and violent content, such as videos of corpses, allegedly Hamas members, targeted at its own citizens.

Telegram’s published community guidelines around moderation are bare-bones. They state that it does not allow spam and scams, illegal pornography or the promotion of violence on “publicly viewable Telegram channels”. Its rules also state that it will block terrorist channels, having eventually succumbed to pressure to remove public Isis groups in 2019 and far-right extremist groups in the US who used the platform to mobilise ahead of the January 6 attack on the Capitol building in 2021.

The company has a small policy team of around 10 people, as well as several hundred external contractor moderators. But questions remain over how Durov, who is ultimately responsible for decision-making on moderation, is applying the policies.  

“Moderation is never easy, and sometimes we’re not ready for certain events that unfold in real time and happen very fast. I would argue that in moments like this, no one is ready,” Durov says. “Typically feedback from users is please do not start censoring any content — this was true in Israel.”

Following recent pressure to remove Hamas channels, some have now been restricted across the platform. But others remain live. One, Hamasps, with 111,000 followers, appears to be restricted only when accessed via Apple or Android devices, but is available for those accessing via the web. Others are available on Android but not Apple, for example, suggesting that the platform is responding to specific demands applied by app stores rather than blocking access due to its own guidelines. Wired first reported the discrepancies.  

“We don’t know exactly what is supposed to be taken down. We don’t know which measures apply and when — is a channel taken down fully, is it geoblocked in a certain country, is it only available on web, not Apple or Android?” says researcher Urman.

She notes that there have also been several “politically dubious decisions”, which have “tarnished” Durov’s reputation as a “free speech hero”. This includes taking down a bot run by late Kremlin opposition leader Alexei Navalny which gave recommendations on how Russians should vote to unseat politicians from Putin’s party. Telegram has previously blamed these instances on pressure from the app stores. 

Durov insists the platform has never handed over private chat data to governments. In response to criticism, he has decided to label certain misinformation, rather than take it down, arguing that removing content tends to reinforce conspiracy theories. “What was considered to be a conspiracy theory yesterday can become the official point of view today. And as a platform, you won’t always be able to keep up with the changes,” he says.

Some reject Durov’s standpoint altogether. “No-holds-barred free speech is a flawed idea,” says Samuel Woolley, a propaganda expert and assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, arguing that it is “powerful and highly organised groups” who have the resources and technical knowhow to co-opt Telegram to manipulate opinion, for example.

“Telegram and other platforms like it are critical tools for free speech and for democracy. But it’s also true that these are tremendous tools for control and coercion.”

Additional reporting by Max Harlow in London and Raya Jalabi in Beirut

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