How journalists can address misinformation on Telegram

Bermet Talant reviews the uses and misuses of Telegram's messaging platform. Photo: Aubrey Belford

Bermet Talant reviews the uses and misuses of Telegram's messaging platform. Photograph: Aubrey Belford

Telegram is no stranger to criticism. Created by Russian-born tech entrepreneur Pavel Durov to counter the censorship and propaganda of authoritarian regimes, it has faced bans, legal action, and political scandal

Telegram’s popularity has grown rapidly in the past two years in correlation with more concerted efforts to remove misinformation on other social media platforms and with a change in WhatsApp’s privacy rules. As of July 2021, Telegram had 550 million active users worldwide – more than the individual user bases of Twitter, Snapchat or Discord. It is the fifth most-popular messaging app after Facebook-owned WhatsApp and Messenger, and WeChat and QQ, which dominate the Chinese market.

According to the Reuters Institute's Digital News Report 2021, Telegram usage doubled in some countries over the last year. It has been growing not only in the Global South, but in some western markets too.  

This rapid growth has increased concern among journalists and academics that Telegram is becoming the latest source of viral disinformation. It is harder to track how the information travels within messaging apps and private conversations. 

While the misuse of WhatsApp in places like India and Brazil forced the company to impose limits on forwarding messages, Telegram’s outstanding feature is its ability to disseminate a message directly to the mobile phones of hundreds of thousands of people through “channels” and “mega-groups”. Telegram has responded to some pressure from tech giants like Apple and Google to remove violent content in the past, but it has resisted most pressure to fight rampant misinformation and conspiracy theories, and has been criticised for not responding to media or government requests. 

According to journalists and digital researchers from Ukraine, Brazil, Germany, Canada, Belarus, and Spain that I interviewed about Telegram, there are ways to address the issue – both on and off the platform. These include investigating Telegram movements and their political or financial interest, producing more responsible journalism, getting clearer communication from governments, and following the continued moderation efforts on other social media platforms. 

What’s more, media outlets and public organisations could themselves take advantage of Telegram’s broadcasting functionalities and chatbots to reach broader audiences and build communities. 

The full paper is available for download here. This piece is a summary with some tips from investigative journalists and digital researchers for any new Telegram users. 

Consider the ethics of reporting something from closed groups 

People have a right to privacy and free speech, and closed groups give a safe space to people to express themselves. This creates ethical and legal challenges for journalists. First Draft’s 2019 journalist guidebook has a checklist of questions to ask yourself before embarking on reporting from messaging apps and closed groups.

Press contacts for Telegram

Telegram accepts media inquiries via @PressBot. A response is not guaranteed, but comment may be provided by the company’s spokesperson, Mike Ravdonikas.

Scrape and archive religiously

Telegram has an open API. There are two Telegram API frameworks for Python – Pyrogram and Telethon and both can be used to build data scrapers. Its desktop client is open source, so you (or a programmer in your newsroom) can build your own. You can create and browse archives using Archive.is or Wayback Machine. For a less technologically difficult option, Telegram allows you to download the entire archive of a channel in HTML format. Data can be imported into spreadsheets using the R programming language. 

Analyse content and follow the spread 

TGStat is the best option, and has both a free version and a paid version with more functionalities. You should also use any search engine to see whether a post appeared anywhere else on the web. Pay attention to engagement metrics such as the number of views a post gets. Don't forget voice notes: misinformation can be spread through them, but they are much harder to track. 

Map networks and connections 

Pay attention to when a channel was created, whose posts it reshares (forwarded posts), and where a channel is mentioned for the first time. But remember that publications and reposts can be paid-for and may not prove the channels belong to one network or have the same admins or owners. Recently, Telegram allowed for the hiding of the sender’s name in forwarded messages.

Look for political or business interests

Disinformation spreaders may have strong financial incentives: from selling their books and seminars to collecting donations for their podcasts and earning conference speaker fees. They may also be seeking political influence or other outcomes.

Be mindful of your safety, and that of your sources

Security experts recommend using a different SIM card to your usual one, and setting up a display username so that other users can connect with you without needing your phone number. For extra security, you should also set up a passcode for the app, as well as two-step verification with a strong password and a recovery email for extra security.

One-on-one chats on Telegram are not end-to-end encrypted by default 

To use this function, turn on “Secret chats”. Telegram allows users to completely erase chat history from both sides, no matter how old the conversation is. It also allows them to set up disappearing messages. Group chats use server-client encryption.. 

Organise your channels and chats into folders 

Divide them by theme or country and separate them from private chats. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of information, so sorting and prioritising is key. 

Connect with potential sources

With a person’s username, you can find and message them without knowing their phone number. If you see someone in a group chat you want to follow or talk to privately, click on their “user info” to turn on notifications for their posts, send them a message, or add them to your contacts. Their phone number will become visible only after they add you as a contact. You may opt out of sharing your phone number. 

Search outside Telegram

Curators of Telegram channels tend to use other platforms to attract new audiences. Search “https://t.me/”, for instance, on Facebook or Twitter for links to channels or group chats. 

Collect user-generated content and build your evidence library 

Telegram allows for the uploading of photos and videos without compression up to 2GB per file. It is easy to download them directly from the app: just right click on file to save a video in .mp4/m4v format and photo in .jpeg. You can also download voice messages and any other files sent to groups and chats. 

In addition, many channels add watermarks to videos and photos they post. It is worth using InVid verification plugin for fragmenting video into keyframes and conducting reverse image searches. 

It is worth noting, however, that Telegram removes metadata from uploaded files. 

News organisations should become more proactive in addressing misinformation both on and off the messaging platform. Telegram itself offers broadcasting and community-building functionalities – such as the decentralised newsfeed, chat bots, audio and video live streams, channels, and groups – that news organisations could use to reach these audiences.