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The Telegram app has been a key platform for Hamas. Now it's being restricted there

Telegram has removed popular Hamas-linked accounts from the messaging service after a pro-Israel advocacy organization sent letters to Apple and Google asking the tech companies to pressure Telegram to take down the channels.
Matt Slocum
/
AP
Telegram has removed popular Hamas-linked accounts from the messaging service after a pro-Israel advocacy organization sent letters to Apple and Google asking the tech companies to pressure Telegram to take down the channels.

Telegram, the popular messaging app, has blocked a number of channels with ties to Hamas. The move followed Apple and Google coming under pressure from outside groups to force Telegram to block channels that violated the tech giants' terms of service.

While accounts related to Hamas have been banned across most other major social networks, Telegram has emerged as one of Hamas' central platforms, thanks to the company's unfiltered approach to social media, allowing first-person accounts of the brutal Israel-Hamas war to spread widely.

Some of the channels amassed hundreds of thousands of subscribers and sent out graphic images and videos of the war, in addition to calls to action from Hamas members.

Telegram removes Hamas channels after pressure from advocacy group

Last week, the pro-Israel Zachor Legal Institute sent Apple a letter pointing out seven accounts with connections to Hamas that were still available on Telegram for Apple users, while Telegram had removed them for Android devices.

The group pleaded with Apple to force Telegram to also remove the channels from being available on iPhones and other Apple devices.

Less than 24 hours later, Telegram banned on Apple devices four of the seven channels Zachor Legal Institute highlighted, including Qassam Brigades, a channel dedicated to Hamas' military wing that had more than 700,000 subscribers and an account known as Spokesman_ 2020 that had more than 500,000 followers.

But three other channels with links to Hamas, which together have nearly 1 million subscribers, were still active Telegram channels on iPhones.

It is not clear why Telegram disallowed some Hamas channels and let others remain. A spokesman for Telegram did not return a request for comment.

Whether Apple applied pressure on Telegram to remove the channels is uncertain; Apple has not responded to multiple requests for comment. But Zachor Legal Institute says it believes Apple was responding to its demands.

"Hamas uses these channels as psychological terror tools to influence Western public," said Ron Machol, Zachor Legal Institute's Chief Operating Officer.

A spokesman for Google would not confirm whether it asked Telegram to remove Hamas channels, but pointed to the company's app store policies which require that apps moderate content that celebrates terrorist attacks or promotes violence.

"When violations are found we take appropriate action," a Google spokesman said.

Telegram crackdown follows CEO's prior defense of Hamas-linked channels

The decision to ban Hamas-aligned channels came despite Telegram CEO Pavel Durov's longtime support of keeping the channels open and free of content policing.

Durov, a Russian-born tech mogul who is now based in Dubai, has argued on his platform that the Hamas channels have provided an important source of information about the war.

Earlier this month, Durov said in a Telegram message that Hamas has used channels on his platform to warn Palestinian civilians about looming missile strikes.

"Would shutting down their channel help save lives — or would it endanger more lives? While it would be easy for us to destroy this source of information, doing so risks exacerbating an already dire situation," he wrote.

Meta, Google and X, formerly Twitter, block all accounts with links to Hamas.

Telegram's more hands-free approach to moderating Hamas has led to a surge in subscribers.

For instance, the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab found that a channel dedicated to Hamas' military wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, grew to more than 600,000 since the war started, more than tripling its number of subscribers.

Gaza Now, another Hamas-aligned channel, had 350,000 followers when the war broke out, now has nearly 2 million subscribers. It often reposts Hamas posts, and the channel is available on both Apple and Google devices.

Critics of Telegram have for weeks called on the company to remove Hamas accounts, arguing that the platform is amplifying terrorist propaganda and being used to defend grisly acts of violence.

Being in violation of Apple and Google's app store rules could result in an app being removed from the mobile app stores both companies control. Both Apple and Google have rules against apps that promote violence.

Being kicked out Apple and Google's app stores would make it impossible for new users to download the app, and it would also slowly cripple the functionality of the service since Telegram would have no way to send its 800 million monthly active users software updates.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.