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Sex, drugs, and loathing: can Telegram really clean up its app?

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It’s been a busy couple of weeks for Telegram. The messaging app has seen a surge in sign-ups following news that WhatsApp is changing its privacy policy to allow data-sharing with Facebook, but it’s not all been sun and roses. I take a look at where things stand for Telegram Messenger in 20201.

One of the main reasons Telegram, among other social media platforms, has been under the spotlight of late is concerns that it provides a perfect habitat for the spread of far-right hate speech. After the siege on the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump supporters, social media platforms are taking a long, hard look in the mirror.

Yesterday, Telegram CEO and founder, Pavel Durov, wrote that the messaging app had removed hundreds of public calls for violence. “Telegram welcomes peaceful debate and protest, but our Terms of Service explicitly prohibit distributing public calls to violence,” the post said. “Last week our moderators blocked and shut down hundreds of public calls for violence that could’ve otherwise reached tens of thousands of subscribers. The team continues to process reports from users in addition to proactively removing content that directly incites violence.”

Meanwhile, a non-profit group in Washington is suing Apple, demanding that the iPhone manufacturer removes Telegram from its App Store as we saw it do with Parler earlier this month. So so-called Coalition for a Safer Web group, says that the app has become a haven for extremists, “white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and other hateful content”.

The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for Northern California and requires Apple to remove Telegram from the App Store. When Apple banned Parler, it said it was doing so due to “threats of violence and illegal activity” on the platform.

Durov is not an idiot and knows what is on the platform he founded. He is already on record confirming Telegram’s plan-B if Apple ever does pull the plug – a web app which will run in Safari. It really feels like a matter of time now, at least in the USA.

Parler has already been removed by from the App Store by Apple. / © Parler

The United States accounts for only two per cent of Telegram’s user base, but it’s still an easy win for the company to make a big deal about taking some hate speech from the platform. After all, getting kicked off of the Apple App Store would be a huge blow to the company’s growth efforts. In Europe, however, Telegram is more widely used, and in certain cities, it has become a platform popular for almost every conceivable vice.

Recent reports in the Berliner Zeitung newspaper detailed how crime is flourishing in the German capital thanks to Telegram. Groups facilitating prostitution and the sale of drugs are commonplace. The now-famous ‘coke-taxis’, a service where party-goers can order cocaine and other recreational drugs delivered to their door, are advertised everywhere on Telegram. The fact that the app offers channels and public groups based on your location, means that it’s the ideal tool for drug dealers. By using the People Nearby feature, drugs and sex are just a couple of clicks away. Telegram messages are encrypted, and hardly any are ever deleted.

But it’s not just its suitability for illegal activity that is making Telegram popular in Germany. The Berliner Zeitung report states that Telegram is also “where corona deniers like rightwing vegan celebrity chef Attila Hildmann and Querdenker [lateral thinker] initiator Michael Wendler began spreading their wild theories and it’s become one of the most downloaded apps”.

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news services like NextPit are also on Telegram. / © NextPit

The fact of the matter remains, people are flooding to Telegram in 2021. Last week, the Russian-developed, Dubai-based messaging app gained around 25 million new users within a single 72-hour period. The app now has more than 500 million users, nothing compared to WhatsApp’s one-and-a-half billion, but the trend is there for all to see. The question remains, how many people leaving WhatsApp for Telegram know what they are getting themselves in for?

Reports suggest a loan of more than one billion dollars is now on the table for Durow to capitalize on the boom. Durow emigrated from Russia due to political repression and made his money after founding the Russian Facebook alternative VKontakte. The 36-year-old now looks set on further expansion of Telegram, and part of that effort will surely include some kind of clean up job. Whether or not Telegram is able to go mainstream, however, remains to be seen.

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