X, formerly Twitter, has been flooded with misinformation and otherwise dangerous content since Hamas attacked Israel last Saturday. But while X helps deliver a tide of bogus content to mainstream audiences, a different app is serving as ground zero for viral misinformation, while giving users the impression that they’re getting a front-row seat to the conflict.
Telegram has become a haven for raw conflict footage posted by militant groups and others that may or may not accurately depict an unfolding event. Users have been spreading this unverified content across larger social channels, with some bad actors passing video lifted off of Telegram as original reporting while applying often ill-informed or just plain incorrect analysis to an unsuspecting audience on other platforms — particularly X.
The platform formerly known as Twitter has long been used as a central hub for real-time information from verified sources on developing news stories. Things have changed since Musk bought the platform a little more than a year ago, with the billionaire gutting moderation staff and policies, reinstating previously banned extremist accounts, and allowing users to purchase verification and then profit from viral content that isn’t necessarily accurate. The platform is now an ideal megaphone for the kind of misinformation that proliferates on Telegram.
“We have seen a surge of [misinformation] coming out, specifically from X and Telegram,” says Dina Sadek, a Middle East research fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “A lot of the content we’ve been sifting through includes old footage from the [Israel-Hamas] conflict, from other conflicts, and a fair amount of graphic content.”
Telegram, a multi-platform messaging app which runs with a much smaller staff than other platforms, conducts little to no moderation of its services. The hands-off approach has made it the go-to platform for groups or individuals banned from mainstream networks, including ISIS, QAnon, and neo-Nazis. It’s also made the service a frequent target of criticism from governments, who accuse Telegram of providing a digital safe harbor for terrorist propaganda.
In recent years Telegram has served as exactly that for militant groups, white nationalist movements, and terrorist organizations. The use of Telegram as both an organizational tool and open recruitment forum rife with propaganda has, at times, created a misleading aura for users seeking authentic, uncurated access to events unfolding in areas of armed conflict, like the ongoing war in Ukraine and, now, the conflict between Israel and Hamas.
Telegram is used as a communication method by both Hamas and the Israeli Defense Forces, as well as citizens and first responders with a first-hand view of the war. Many channels featuring conflict content are public, allowing access to those both within and outside of the Middle East without the need for approvals and permissions.
“[Hamas] is distributing a lot of their content that they have edited,” Sadek says of the terrorist group’s use of the platform. “They shared content with audiences from the initial hours of the attack and now they’re just sharing content from the various places that they’re in, showing the aftermath, death, and destruction.”
Hamas’ unfiltered access to Telegram has helped the terrorist group to dramatically increase its audience on the platform. User data calculated by the social media research think tank DFRLab shows that the official Telegram channel for Hamas’ military wing, the Al Qassam Brigades, has nearly tripled its pre-war followerbase. The same pattern has held for Hamas’ flagship Telegram channel, which now commands a following of 137,000 users, also three times its pre-war audience. Accounts tied to Israel have also seen huge follower boosts since the conflict broke out.
The overabundance of unfiltered conflict content has been fertile ground for trolls looking to sow chaos around the conflict, go viral with sensationalized content, or both. “[Conflict content] travels between platforms so something that you’ve seen on Telegram is now making its way to X,” says Sadek. “A lot of people are not really attributing the content and the source of where it comes from.”
Earlier this week, Palestinian Telegram channels like Jenin News published footage of Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, suggesting that they had hit the Saint Porphyrius Greek Orthodox church. The claim quickly spread to X, where blue-check subscribers to the platform’s premium service confidently asserted that the church had been destroyed. But as journalists and the church itself later showed, the claim was bogus.
“There is variance in the credibility of Telegram channels, and the growing role of aggregator accounts on Telegram and Twitter who don’t share the original source is making it increasingly difficult to determine the credibility or context of the footage they share,” says Rob Lee, a former marine infantry officer and a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Other examples appear to be less a game of social media “telephone” — with the reality behind a piece of content getting distorted as it travels from user to user across platforms — and more of a witting attempt to deceive. This week, Russian-language Telegram users edited a fake video in the visual style of BBC News, purporting to show military aid sent to Ukraine in the hands of Hamas. The video, which falsely attributed the made-up story to the open-source investigative outlet Bellingcat, circulated widely on Telegram before migrating to X.
This kind of content arbitrage playbook became especially popular in early 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine for a second time. Telegram — founded by Pavel Durov, a former executive from Russia’s most popular social network, Vkontakte — enjoys an especially large following among countries of the former Soviet Union, including among Russian propaganda outlets and government-affiliated media channels, and became a hub of imagery from the conflict.
While Telegram has previously brushed off concerns from governments about its status as a refuge for extremist content and misinformation, at least in Europe the company may run afoul of European Union regulators who are showing increasing impatience with social media companies over their moderation practices.
Thierry Breton, commissioner for the EU’s Internal Market, sent out a flurry of angry letters to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube this week after witnessing “a surge of illegal content and disinformation being disseminated in the EU via certain platforms.” Breton, who has published the letters over the course of the past few days, has yet to send any correspondence to Telegram, a platform that has in the past shrugged off various government attempts at regulation. But the letters pointedly remind platforms of their responsibilities to remove illegal and misleading content, and that failure to comply could cost them.
On Friday, Durov, Telegram’s founder, vowed not to remove Hamas’ channels, claiming that their presence might save lives rather than threaten them. “Earlier this week, Hamas used Telegram before rocket attacks on Ashkelon to warn civilians that they must leave the area. Will shutting down this channel help save lives or jeopardize them?” Durov wrote on his Telegram channel. He also argued that Telegram users only receive content from channels to which they’re subscribed, making it harder for the platform to “significantly amplify propaganda.”
The same can’t be said of X, however, which is now serving a mainstream user base with repackaged Telegram conflict footage that may or may not be propaganda.