Hamas is barred from most social media platforms. But its following has surged on popular messaging app Telegram since its October 7 terror attack on Israel.
One account belonging to the al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas movement, has seen its following triple, and there has been a ten-fold increase in the number of views of videos and other content posted by the account.
Hamas is a designated foreign terror organization in the United States, and new internet laws in the European Union mean large social media platforms can face penalties for hosting terroristic content.
Meta and Google prohibit Hamas accounts, but Telegram, a company founded by a Russian entrepreneur which is now based in Dubai, has decided to allow the group to continue use its service.
X, formerly Twitter, says it also has a ban on Hamas and has removed “hundreds” of “Hamas-affiliated accounts.” Last week, however, the European Union announced it was opening an investigation into the company about disinformation and illegal content about the conflict on its platform.
The Telegram channel for Hamas’ military wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, had about 200,000 followers at the time of the attack. The channel’s following has since more than tripled, according to an analysis by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Before the attack, posts by the channel were viewed on average about 25,000 times – now they are viewed more than 300,000 times, a more than 10-fold increase.
Another channel that posts video messages from a Hamas spokesperson had about 166,000 followers before October 7th and now has more than 414,000 followers, according to Memetica, a threat analysis company.
Because of its very loose content moderation rules, Telegram has become popular among extremist groups internationally and among far-right groups in the United States, said Brian Fishman, who formerly ran the team at Meta that tackled terrorist and other dangerous organizations and who now works at Cinder, a trust and safety company he co-founded.
Telegram’s popularity in the US began to grow after the January 6th attack on the US Capitol when prominent peddlers of election conspiracy theories began using the platform after they were kicked off sites like Facebook and Twitter. Some 800 million people use Telegram gloablly, its founder says.
Fishman said while the huge growth in the number of people following Hamas’ Telegram accounts is concerning, it doesn’t mean all the followers are supporters – pointing out that many journalists, researchers and others are likely following the accounts.
But he said Telegram can be an effective propaganda tool, “I think it’s really concerning when a group can get its message out to a wider range of folks. And some of those people are going to be force multipliers because they’ll take that material and they’re going to post it on other platforms. That’s really the model we saw with ISIS.”
Telegram was founded by Pavel Durov, a Russian-born entrepreneur. Durov left Russia in 2014 after refusing to hand over data from another tech company he founded about pro-Ukrainian protesters to the Russian government.
“Earlier this week, Hamas used Telegram to warn civilians in Ashkelon to leave the area ahead of their missile strikes,” Durov wrote in a public Telegram post on Friday explaining why he would continue to allow Hamas to use his platform. “Would shutting down their channel help save lives — or would it endanger more lives?”
Durov argued that Telegram was different from other platforms because it doesn’t use algorithms to promote content and that Hamas Telegram channels “serve as a unique source of first-hand information for researchers, journalists and fact-checkers.”
For years, critics of social media have tried to hold platforms accountable by suing them for the content they host, including material produced by terror groups.
But US courts have generally looked askance at this type of litigation, and few if any potential content moderation lawsuits linked to the Israel-Hamas war will get very far, at least in the United States, according to John Bergmayer, an attorney specializing in platform liability issues at Public Knowledge, a US-based consumer advocacy group.
Internet platforms have broad leeway in the United States to moderate what appears on their platforms, and that right is protected legally both by the First Amendment and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the hot-button federal law that has been widely criticized by Republicans and Democrats for letting tech companies off the hook, albeit for different reasons.
Section 230 would benefit platforms such as Telegram by letting it claim that decisions to host or remove terrorism content can’t be questioned in US courts. And that could make it more difficult for plaintiffs to use legal action to force Telegram to remove Hamas content.
Telegram could potentially face tougher scrutiny in the European Union, where regulations exist requiring platforms to remove terrorism content within one hour of an EU authority notifying them of its existence. Platforms that don’t comply could face fines of up to 4% of their annual revenue.
The European Union has warned very large platforms this past week that they could also be fined billions if their handling of illegal content or mis- and disinformation violates the Digital Services Act (DSA), a law that went into effect for companies including Meta, X and TikTok in August.
It’s unclear whether the European Commission has sent similar warnings to Telegram or requested information from the platform, and a spokesman for Thierry Breton, the European commissioner who sent last week’s warnings to tech companies, didn’t immediately respond to questions about how EU officials view Telegram. But Telegram is not included on the EU’s official list of very large platforms subject to heightened DSA obligations.
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