of a Radicalization

How Telegram became the most important Platform for Conspiracy Ideologies and Right-wing Extremism

Within the past three years, Telegram has become the most important platform for conspiracy ideologues and right-wing extremists in German-speaking countries. Using this messaging service, numerous channels reach hundreds of thousands of people every day – and for some messages, the number of views is in the millions.

The messaging service was used, for example, to organize the protests of the so-called “Querdenken” movement during the COVID-19 pandemic and to spread conspiracy narratives about vaccination. The pro-Russian disinformation shared on the platform manages to exert deep influence on political discourses and attitudes far beyond the boundaries of online chat records. Plans for coups and terrorist acts have been openly discussed, and antisemitic content disseminated en masse.

Several “alternative media” outlets regularly reach six-figure audiences via Telegram, allowing them to fund even larger editorial teams. State sanctions are circumvented by providing direct financial support to pro-Russian disinformation influencers via Telegram. Currently, Telegram and its founder Pavel Durov are expanding these possibilities even further: Telegram will be used in the long term not only for dissemination, but also for international financing of disinformation and conspiracy ideologies.

The belief persists that Telegram does not respond to government requests and does not delete any content. This is a misconception. Past incidents have shown that Telegram has in fact responded when the pressure became too great and, for example, fears emerged concerning a potential removal from the app stores of Google and Apple - but Telegram’s action has so far only been haphazard and unsystematic.

How did Telegram become the most important platform for conspiracy ideologues and right-wing extremists within such a short period of time? Why has the platform been able to evade almost every attempt at regulation so far – and when has it been forced to act after all? Is it that Telegram cannot, or will not, do anything about the hate on its platform? Who are currently the most relevant actors on the platform and how many people do they reach? What can we expect from the messaging service in the future?

In this new CeMAS Digital Report, we drill down on these questions.

Communication on Telegram is possible directly via direct messages, but also through so-called channels and groups. These channels and groups played a major role in the networking of the conspiracy-ideological and far-right scene. Channels can be subscribed to by Telegram users. If the channel operator writes a message, all subscribers receive this notification directly. Communication here is largely unidirectional, although in some cases, channels enable the option of commenting on the channel’s posts or reacting to them via emojis. A channel’s size is unlimited.

In addition to channels, communication also takes place in groups. In groups, users can chat with other users and also share messages (e.g. from channels). Many of the groups on Telegram have a regional connection. Groups have a maximum size of 200,000 members. Unlike other social networks, Telegram does not use a so-called newsfeed, i.e. a start page tailored to the individual user which aggregates the posts of the channels. Telegram only shows the most recent communications in channels and groups in a chronological order. Channel operators are therefore particularly dependent on their messages being discussed frequently and topically in many other groups and shared via other channels.

This creates a messaging system with unique characteristics in dealing with content moderation and deletion: If a channel is deleted, there may still be many groups in which the content of a successor channel is shared. These particular features of Telegram lead the Identitarian movement to decide to create a decentralized network on the platform through the use of local groups in 2018. This system is later adopted by other actors.

In 2018 and 2019, the milieu’s German-language channels grow slowly but steadily. Oliver Janich and a channel of the Identitarian Movement reach about 40,000 subscribers by the end of 2019 - they are by far the widest-reaching channels of this period. In December 2019, Janich’s messages reach about 13,700 views per message.

2020: During the pandemic, the reach on Telegram explodes.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, groups quickly emerge on established social networks, such as Facebook, in which the pandemic is reinterpreted in conspiracy ideology terms: the virus is denied, containment measures are rejected, and a personified image of the enemy is constructed around the effects of the pandemic. Many platforms come under pressure to curb disinformation and conspiracy narratives on their networks.

Following a similar principle to that of the Identitarian movement, on April 24, 2020, the Facebook group Corona Rebellen (“Corona Rebels”), which at the time had around 60,000 members, decides to set up local and decentralized groups on Telegram. In doing so, they also aim to pre-empt a possible ban by Facebook.

The Telegram groups and channels have names like Corona Rebellen Düsseldorf, Nicht ohne uns Wesel (“Not Without Us - Wesel”) and Querdenken 711 Stuttgart.

With the onset of the pandemic, a large part of the conspiracy-ideological and far-right scene concentrate their communication on Telegram. Hundreds of channels and groups are created, and channels that were already present on the platform before the pandemic suddenly reach hundreds of thousands on their platform.

2021: New “alternative” media outlets establish themselves on the scene.

As the pandemic progresses, numerous “alternative media” portals are founded in which permanent editorial teams regularly publish new and professional-looking content. Based on their own statements, they often finance themselves through donations from the scene, but also through product and advertising placements on associated websites and Telegram channels., Infodirect, AUF1, Boris Reitschuster and RT DE become permanent fixtures on the conspiracy-ideological scene. In 2021, many of these “alternative media” have managed to build up a large audience and use it to spread numerous conspiracy narratives and disinformation.

2022: Year of the Pro-Russian disinformation influencer

The start of Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine in February 2022 also changes the information landscape on Telegram.

In just three years, Telegram has become one of the most important platforms for the conspiracy-ideological and far-right milieu. During the pandemic, but also beyond, various actors were able to build up a network on the platform in which they can regularly reach six-figure views. This large audience, but also the numerous functions and extensions of the platforms, led to the professionalization of many of the actors presented here. Through their dissemination of conspiracy narratives, disinformation, right-wing extremism and antisemitism, they are now able to raise enough money through advertising or donations to pay editorial staff in some cases.

A conspiracy-ideological and far-right universe has formed on Telegram.

Contrary to the hopes of right-wing extremists and conspiracy ideologues, moderation also takes place on Telegram in the form of restrictions and limitations on accounts, channels and groups – albeit to a much lesser extent than on other social networks.

Telegram founder Pavel Durov often implied that one of Telegram’s founding ideas was to create a platform that would never respond to government requests. A platform that would set freedom of speech as its highest edict.

This principle broke with reality more often than not: the company’s history shows that Telegram has in fact responded to requests and ban inquiries – Telegram has come to the table in several countries, even with autocracies.

The platform has resorted to various content moderation options in the past.

Measures range from blocking channels on certain devices (such as Apple devices), to restricting access from certain regions (e.g. blocking European phone numbers), to deleting accounts, content, channels, and groups altogether.

During the pandemic, the platform came under increasing pressure due to criticism for not doing anything against the hate and numerous calls for violence on the platform – pressure that may have led Telegram to take stronger action on its platform after all.

Telegram’s biggest fear is being removed from the app stores. For this reason, Telegram blocks channels and groups on Apple devices particularly quickly if pornographic content is shown or copyrights are violated.

In the case of antisemitic and violent statements, on the other hand, the company often acts only haphazardly and unsystematically.

This is particularly obvious in the case of the antisemite Attila Hildmann.

The former cookbook author was a frequent guest on cooking shows and entertainment television before the pandemic. With the onset of the pandemic, he spread numerous conspiracy narratives and increasingly used explicit antisemitic vocabulary. These appearances were more frequently thematized in the German media.

He was able to avoid a planned arrest in February 2021 because he fled to Turkey in December 2020. Since then, he has been spreading his antisemitic posts from there.

The antisemitism and calls for violence in Hildmann’s groups – as in many other places on the platform – can hardly be denied.

Using a machine-learning approach developed in partnership with Rewire, CeMAS was able to automatically capture thousands of antisemitic messages in tens of thousands of comments posted in Hildmann’s groups.

Telegram could also use such methods to identify channels and groups on which there are calls for violence and group-based misanthropy, and then review them. Their systems would need to detect when second and third channels are created following bans.

Telegram does react. However, it only does so when the pressure from outside is great enough and the attention on the hateful rhetoric being spread on the platform is enough to risk the Telegram app being removed from the app stores of Google and Apple.

In the past, this threat has led Telegram to at least partly abandon its usual strategy for government requests – ignoring them – and to take a public stance and even engage in measures such as content moderation. For a look at the company’s past and how Pavel Durov’s team has dealt with demands from state actors, see a detailed guest post by Darren Loucaides.


Guest Article
Darren Loucaides

Who Runs Telegram?
Between Ideology and Pragmatism as a Core Element of Corporate Strategy.

Telegram has not been a profitable platform for founder Pavel Durov. Attempts to earn money via the messaging service, e.g. through advertising, have largely failed so far.

However, in recent months, payment features on the platform have been significantly expanded and new capabilities have been developed to support both Telegram and channel operators.

The introduction of Payment 2.0 and the expansion of the bots @wallet and @donate provided by Telegram suggest that the platform will integrate payment and donation functions into the app to an even greater extent in the future. This is also indicated by the latest extensions with the function to buy and auction usernames via Telegram. According to Pavel Durov, this was very successful: within a few weeks, more than 50 million US dollars had been transacted via the Telegram auction platform Fragment. In contrast to previous monetization attempts (for example, through advertising on the platform or premium features), success was seen here for the first time with respect to the monetization of Telegram, which had previously not been very profitable.

Telegram’s next step is to build a set of decentralized tools, including non-custodial wallets and decentralized exchanges for millions of people to securely trade and store cryptocurrencies.

With the expansion of payment options on the platform, it is to be feared that even more actors will be able to professionalize themselves in the future. In the long term, Telegram will stabilize the conspiracy ideology and far-right milieu, network them internationally, and enable them to raise funds via the platform to an even greater extent.

In just a few years, Telegram has become the most important platform for conspiracy ideologues and right-wing extremists. Not just in Germany, but around the world, disinformation and conspiracy narratives are shared via Telegram. Funding opportunities are now being exploited over the platform. Right-wing terrorist groups also use the platform to network internationally. Since Telegram is currently working on further expanding direct payment options on the platform, it is to be feared that even more actors will professionalize themselves over the platform in the future. In order to counteract this development and encourage platform operators to take action, there are some promising approaches:

Public pressure causes Telegram to act.

Telegram is concerned for its reputation and fears being removed from the app stores of Google and Apple above all. Public reporting on the platform’s misconduct as well as political pressure has historically often led Telegram to act – albeit unsystematically.

Even without the platform’s cooperation, investigations and prosecutions are often possible.

The arrests and raids within Germany in the past months as well as numerous investigative inquiries have shown that identifying perpetrators is still possible even in the absence of cooperation with the platforms. This also requires greater awareness among (investigative) authorities of the potential threat posed by digital hate and digital violence.

Demonetization can be an important means of limiting disinformation and conspiracy ideology.

The increasing professionalization of the conspiracy-ideological and far-right scene combined with the possibility of funding via platforms like Telegram present us with significant challenges. More resources enable more action. Since Telegram has hardly and only haphazardly made use of blocking and deletion (so-called “deplatforming”), it is also necessary to consider measures that prevent monetary enrichment from, as well as financing of, disinformation and conspiracy ideology, for example by informing advertisers and payment service providers on the platforms.

Content moderation must be transparent.

Telegram makes highly arbitrary use of blocks and restrictions. The reporting of channels and content on the platform has no discernible impact. Transparency reporting and external scrutiny, including via legislation such as the Digital Services Act, must be enforced.


Center for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy

CeMAS consolidates interdisciplinary expertise on the topics of conspiracy ideologies, disinformation, antisemitism, and right-wing extremism.

This report has been funded by the Alfred Landecker Foundation. The Alfred Landecker Foundation promotes and advances the development of an open, democratic, and discrimination-free society. The foundation is an incubator for democracy in the digital age. It advocates for a contemporary culture of remembrance and fights against antisemitism and racism. The foundation generates networks, spaces and knowledge by supporting, promoting, networking and professionalizing interdisciplinary projects. By building a network of globally-active partners, it makes knowledge and experience widely available and brings together diverse perspectives from academia and professional practice.