On October 13, Pavel Durov, the founder of Telegram, wondered aloud if he should ban Hamas from his messaging platform.
“Earlier this week, Hamas used Telegram to warn civilians in Ashkelon to leave the area ahead of their missile strikes,” Durov wrote. “Would shutting down their channel help save lives — or would it endanger more lives?”
In the end, Durov didn’t have much of a choice.
Restrictions, not bans — but rare for Telegram nonetheless
Telegram, which is known for its message encryption and lax moderation, restricted two official Hamas channels on Android devices earlier this month. Its team attributed the block to Google, saying on October 22 that the restriction went through “because of Google Play’s guidelines,” The Jerusalem Post reported.
Google’s policies restrict content that promotes terrorism. Hamas, which is designated a terrorist organization by many Western countries, has also been banned from Meta and X platforms.
One of the two restricted channels belongs to Hamas’ militant wing, the al-Qassam Brigades. The channel was also blocked on iOS devices, but not Telegram’s desktop app, Insider found.
While not outright bans, the restrictions are a rare move for Telegram, which has become a free-speech haven for groups hoping to escape government oversight. The platform is renowned for safeguarding the identities of Hong Kong protestors and Ukrainian users, but it’s also notorious for hosting extremist groups like white supremacists.
Where the platform draws the line on bans, Durov has said, is when channels promote or call for violence. And that’s where recent developments, pertaining to the Israel-Gaza war but occurring in Russia, come into play.
Telegram takes the rare step to ban a channel
On Monday, Durov announced the ban of Morning Dagestan, an anti-Kremlin and Islamist Telegram channel that targeted an audience in Dagestan, a Muslim-majority region in southwest Russia. It’s not clear who ran the channel, which had 65,000 subscribers.
On Sunday, the channel had called for its subscribers to enter a Dagestan airport and harass passengers arriving from Tel Aviv, which it said would arrive at 7 p.m. local time.
Hundreds of people, incensed by the Israel-Gaza conflict, showed up at the Makhachkala International Airport that day. The harassment campaign escalated into a riot, despite Morning Dagestan later pleading with the mob to calm down.
In a Telegram post on Monday evening, Durov posted a screenshot of Morning Dagestan, writing in Russian that all channels calling for violence would be blocked for violating the rules of “Telegram, Google, Apple, and the entire civilized world.”
Morning Dagestan was not accessible on Telegram as of Monday evening, though several copycat channels were launched this week with thousands of subscribers each.
Sporadic enforcement of a no-violence rule
Telegram has been known to sporadically enforce its no-violence rule and cooperate with requests to shut down controversial channels promoting hatred and violence. These instances have often been related to some of the most high-profile issues of the moment.
For example, Telegram in 2022 banned 64 accounts, at Germany’s behest, for spreading extremist and COVID-19 disinformation. It also shut down 78 ISIS-related channels in 2015, after the Middle East Media Research Institute documented how Islamic State propaganda was thriving on the platform.
And in 2021, Durov said Telegram blocked hundreds of posts promoting violence in the wake of the US Capitol riot.
But those have largely been exceptions, and channels that blatantly dox people and glorify violence are still pervasive on Telegram.
The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab documented one such example in September. It found more than 70 Armenian and Azerbaijani channels that publish hate speech and incite violence against each other. While several of the accounts and posts highlighted have been taken down, many were still active as of Monday evening.
Iraqi, Burmese, Russian, and Chinese groups also actively dox hundreds of political opponents on Telegram, according to Wired.
The impact of banning Telegram channels remains to be seen
As for Hamas, Telegram has been under pressure for weeks to cut the militant group from its services.
Critics have cited concerns that the organization uploaded dozens of violent videos and images to platforms including Telegram in the wake of Hamas’ October 7 terrorist attacks in Israel. Before the restrictions, Hamas’ official Telegram channels saw a three-fold jump in followers after the attacks, the Digital Forensic Research Lab reported.
Notably, Hamas channels are not the only ones spreading content related to the October 7 attacks, and some of those channels are still available on the platform. The channel South First Responders, for example, has posted at least three dashcam and security camera clips of deliberate killings on October 7 that were verified by the Human Rights’ Watch. The channel is run by an Israeli volunteer group dedicated to publishing footage of the attacks.
And whether the Android and iOS restrictions will truly curb Hamas on Telegram remains to be seen. A channel for Hamas’ spokesperson Abu Obaida is active and has more than 620,000 subscribers.
Several clone accounts for the al-Qassam Brigades and Hamas were also launched in October, some of which have been cross-posted by official channels. At least two of these channels, posting al-Qassam Brigades content, have over 300,000 subscribers a piece, compared to nearly 650,000 on the militant wing’s official and now-restricted channel.
Gaza Now, which was identified by DFRLab, CNBC, and The Washington Post as a Hamas-linked channel, continues to stay active with updates on victims of air strikes. It had 1.4 million subscribers when The Post reported on the channel on October 18, and has grown to 1.9 million subscribers since.
But it’s also difficult to determine which Hamas-linked organizations speak for the militant group, and whether social media platforms will take issue with them. For example, the Palestinian Health Authority is run by Hamas, but has largely been the only source for Palestinian casualties in Gaza.
Telegram, Google, and Apple did not immediately respond to requests for comment from Insider sent outside regular business hours.
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