How Telegram Became a Terrifying Weapon in the Israel-Hamas War

Hamas posted gruesome images and videos that were designed to go viral. Sources argue that Telegram’s lax moderation ensured they were seen around the world.
Photoillustration containing a hand holding a smartphone displaying the Telegram app and scenes of the IsraelHamas...
Photo-Illustration: Cameron Getty; Getty Images

At around 8 am local time the morning of October 7, Haaretz’s cyber and disinformation reporter, Omer Benjakob, was woken by his wife at their home in the historic port city of Jaffa. Something was happening in southern Israel, she said, but Benjakob shrugged it off, presuming “another round of the same shit.” Flare-ups between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and militants in southern Israel are not uncommon. “No, no,” Benjakob’s wife insisted. “It’s more serious.”

There was nothing yet on television or state media except unverified reports of casualties. The authorities were silent. In response to requests from Haaretz, the IDF said the situation was “under review.” On social media, a different story was unfolding. There were clips of dead IDF soldiers. Paragliders descending on a rave in the Negev desert, 3 miles from the $1.1 billion militarized Gaza-Israel Barrier. Militants commandeering IDF military vehicles. “You’re seeing videos of kidnapping. Hamas guys going over the border, and then like shoot-’em-up-style videos going in kibbutz houses,” Benjakob says, still sounding stunned. Like many other Israelis that morning, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

Telegram was already familiar to many Israelis, who, among other things, often procure cannabis through the app. Sustained government pressure on the country’s press had also driven people in search of alternative news sources, Benjakob says. Previous escalations of violence tended to coincide with an uptick of activity on Telegram. Now the Hamas attacks brought a surge of users. “Hundreds of thousands are signing up for Telegram from Israel and the Palestinian Territories,” Pavel Durov, Telegram’s Russian founder, posted on his public channel on October 8, adding that the company was bringing support for Hebrew and Arabic to the app. “Everyone affected should have reliable access to news and private communication in these dire times,” Durov said.

Maria Rashed, a longtime resident of Tel Aviv who recently moved to London, had flown home to Nazareth for her sister’s engagement party the night before the October 7 attacks. “It was overwhelming to wake up facing war,” she tells WIRED. A Palestinian who grew up in a Christian family, Rashed is now an independent journalist. The morning of October 7, she scoured mainstream platforms, especially Instagram. But in the absence of official information, she wanted to see for herself how Hamas fighters had entered Israel. “The only way for me to do that was to go on Telegram, enter the channel related to Hamas’ press team,” she says. “And there you could see unfiltered videos of the attack.”

During the course of the day, Telegram, which has 800 million users worldwide, became the main source of videos and information spreading to other social media platforms, including X, Instagram, and TikTok, where content was being reposted with little to no verification.

In one open source intelligence war-watching group on Telegram, Benjakob saw videos of IDF forces being humbled—basic quad drones dropping grenades on Israel’s state-of-the-art Mark IV Merkava tanks, followed by footage of soldiers fleeing their vehicles and being captured by Hamas fighters. But Benjakob couldn’t be sure if the videos were real. “All the [official] Israeli groups are silent. The official government groups are silent,” he says. “Fucking crazy.”

Five hours after the attacks started, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that his country was at war. With little to no official information, many desperate Israelis were not just watching violent videos released by Hamas; they were also getting caught up in a mess of conspiracy theories. In some groups, the attacks were already being blamed on the IDF for having betrayed Netanyahu. Other conspiracy theory groups on Telegram and X claimed it was all a false-flag operation by the Israeli prime minister. “One of the biggest fronts Israel failed on, and one of the biggest things that helped create panic in Israeli society, was mis- and disinformation during the first 72 hours of this thing,” Benjakob says.

While videos and images of victims were soon going viral on major social networks, the most extreme content can all be traced back to Telegram. Benjakob describes Hamas’ real-time broadcasting of its attack on Israel as “psychological warfare.”

“As [Hamas] entered Israel, there was a digital onslaught launched as well,” says Benjakob. It was “insane” to see militants jumping the border fence, old women being taken away, people being murdered in their beds. “It’s honestly beyond anything the Israeli psyche has experienced, at least in my lifetime.”

The weaponization of Telegram played a key role in this psychological attack, sources argue. The platform’s lack of robust content moderation, alongside its sprawling honeycomb of public channels and groups, enabled content to rapidly reach millions of people.

Although Apple and Google, which host Telegram in their app stores, have now begun asking the company to ban Hamas’ main channels, Telegram has otherwise declined to block channels disseminating extreme content. In a post on his public channel on October 13, Durov alluded to the difficulty of policing speech in a conflict, and cited a Hamas warning before a strike on the Israeli city of Ashkelon as a reason not to act: “Would shutting down their channel help save lives—or would it endanger more lives?”

As with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Telegram, which is headquartered in Dubai, has once again found itself at the center of a complex geopolitical and humanitarian crisis. How this happened—not once, but twice—reveals the outsize power of one of the world's most tight-lipped technology companies. More than a dozen interviews with sources on the ground, analysts, and former Telegram employees reveal the power of the platform to quickly spread unfiltered content ahead of traditional media, as well as the true extent of Hamas’ weaponization of the app—and what seems to be an ideological aversion to interfere at the upper echelons of Telegram.

The Weaponization of Telegram

Hamas accounts have been banned from most social media platforms for years. But, when it launched its attack on Israel on October 7, Hamas had a huge presence on Telegram. The platform’s potential to rapidly disseminate easily downloadable and sharable content made it a crucial weapon. Hamas’ Telegram channels grew rapidly in the first five days of the conflict. Qassam Brigades, the channel dedicated to the organization’s military wing, tripled in size from 205,000 to nearly 620,000 subscribers, alongside a tenfold increase in the number of views per post, according to analysis by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab). In the year prior to the attacks, the channel had only grown by 20,000 followers. Before the takedown requests from Google and Apple, the Qassam Brigades channel was nearing 800,000 subscribers. It is currently down to roughly 670,000 subscribers.

DFRLab analyst Layla Mashkoor followed the October 7 attacks in real-time on Telegram. One of the most-viewed videos she saw featured professionally filmed and edited footage of armed paragliders landing on sandy terrain and storming buildings. It isn’t clear from when or where the video was filmed. Other footage, seemingly recorded on body cameras and phones, shows fighters crossing the Gaza-Israel Barrier and exchanging fire. There are also scenes of Hamas fighters dragging bloodied IDF soldiers from burning tanks. Cameras pan over slain Israeli soldiers in the aftermath of an attack. This video, and others like it, have received more than 700,000 views apiece on Telegram.

“On the actual day of the attack, Hamas was very prepared to spread their message,” says Mashkoor. “We saw highly produced content and there was a more sophisticated media strategy than we've previously seen from them. They definitely had content ready to go, and then their ability to post and upload in real time as the attack was unfolding also shows there was a degree of media strategy,” she adds.

Mashkoor argues that the vacuum left by Israeli authorities let Hamas take control of the narrative in those first few hours. The delay in any official response from Israel meant that Hamas could effectively shape the conversation. By the evening of October 7, the IDF, which had been concentrating on X, began posting more regularly on Telegram. By then Mashkoor was already observing a “very clear pipeline” of images and videos from Telegram to X.

Mashkoor watched as content first uploaded to the Qassam Brigades Telegram channel was reshared by supporters and news outlets, before proliferating all over Telegram and spreading to other social platforms. This pipeline meant that facts were distorted and events were exaggerated or misinterpreted. “A lot of the content is also obviously in Arabic, which adds to some of the confusion when people might be using machine translation while trying to share real-time updates,” says Mashkoor.

Other channels became popular, too. Gaza Now, which the DFRLab describes as “Hamas aligned,” doubled its 350,000 subscribers in the first 24 hours of the crisis, while the average number of views in the first five days increased tenfold. The channel currently has more than 1.9 million subscribers and consistently reposts Hamas content.

Hamas’ own channels still played the commanding role. Analysts at SITE Intelligence Group, a consultancy which monitors the Qassam Brigades channel, claim that Hamas’ Telegram strategy totally changed on October 7. Whereas before it was somewhat dated, now it was specifically designed for “2023 virality,” SITE says. Livestreams were accompanied by a deluge of short, branded clips that could easily be shared. “I couldn’t believe what Hamas was posting,” says Rita Katz, SITE’s executive director and founder. She believes the group’s strategy was partly inspired by the Islamic State’s playbook.

Katz alleges that Hamas’ social media activity has been effective in cultivating rare support across disparate radical Islamist groups around the world, whether Sunni or Shia. “It’s the first time anything like this has happened,” she claims.

Without Telegram, this would have been impossible, argues Katz. “What you can do on Telegram, you can’t do anywhere else. It allows for quick uploads and sharing, to utilize automated bots, to stay anonymous. No other platform comes close.” Katz points to what she claims is an alleged inconsistency in Telegram’s actions given Durov’s stated refusal to move against Hamas’ channels despite the platform removing other groups.

Telegram used to be the app of choice for Islamic State (IS) and other jihadist groups. When asked about this in an interview in 2015, Durov replied that IS would simply find another app if kicked off his. “I don’t think we should feel guilty about this,” he said. “I still think we’re doing the right thing—protecting our users’ privacy.” Shortly afterward, the Islamic State carried out a series of attacks in Paris, killing 130 people, earning Telegram widespread criticism. Telegram subsequently banned 78 IS channels, created a bot to track and eliminate new IS channels, and cooperated with Europol.

This didn’t stop Durov from indulging in a spot of shitposting when, in 2017, he shared a photo of himself on Twitter with the caption “My new passport photo is strangely suitable for media articles about terrorists using Telegram 🤔”, and followed a few days later by changing his profile picture on VK, the Russian social network he ran from 2006 to 2014, to a photoshopped amalgam of his face and the body of an armed IS suicide bomber. That image is still the background image for what appears to be Durov’s YouTube channel.

Only yesterday, October 30, Durov posted a meme of the same image to his Russian-language Telegram channel with the words “Persecuting people on the basis of nationality or religion is unacceptable,” in reaction to Telegram’s blocking of a channel linked to the mob that surrounded a plane arriving in Russia’s mostly Muslim region of Dagestan from Israel. “Channels calling for violence (as in the screenshot above) will be blocked for violating the rules of Telegram, Google, Apple and the entire civilized world,” Durov wrote. While human rights defenders will welcome this rare intervention from Durov and Telegram, the choice to use his IS militant meme may raise eyebrows.

Ruslan Trad, a researcher at the Atlantic Council's DFRLab, argues that IS has had a major influence on how other militant Islamist groups use social media. “IS has shown how to reach a wider audience and how to process content in such a way that it evokes both fear and admiration, and also reaches users who have not been relevant before.” But, he adds, Hamas, unlike IS, maintains international contacts, and many governments don’t regard it as a terrorist group, particularly in Asia and Latin America. “Hamas is also an enemy of the Islamic State,” Trad says.

Even so, Hamas’ ability to widely share images and videos of its attacks have the potential to inspire further violence, Katz argues. “Unless Telegram immediately takes action,” she says, “this is going to escalate and be a much bigger problem. Because this will lead to more violence around the world.” And for that, Katz claims, Telegram will be in no small part responsible.

Inside Telegram

In a bid to understand how Telegram is handling its role in the crisis, WIRED contacted three senior employees: founder and CEO Pavel Durov, vice president Ilya Perekopsky, and head of communications, Mike Ravdonikas. None responded. Neither did Telegram’s press spokesperson. All anyone outside Telegram has to go on is Durov’s public channel, where he has posted twice about the crisis: first on October 8, when he announced large numbers of new signups in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories by people in search of “reliable access to news,” then on October 13, when he claimed that Telegram’s moderators and unspecified “AI tools” were removing “millions of obviously harmful content.”

But, he went on, “tackling war-related coverage is seldom obvious,” highlighting Hamas’ warning to civilians prior to air strikes. “It’s always tempting to act on emotional impulses. But such complex situations require thorough consideration that should also take into account the differences between social platforms.” Durov argued that Telegram users only received the content they have specifically subscribed to—unlike other apps that “algorithmically promote shocking content to unsuspecting people.” As such, he concluded, it was “unlikely” that Telegram channels could be used to “significantly amplify propaganda.”

WIRED spoke to four ex-Telegram employees to try and understand what’s going on inside the company. A former developer agreed with Durov about algorithmic amplification, arguing that “if there are no algorithms to recommend content, then the platform has no responsibility for what the users post because they themselves choose to expose themselves to that content.” The former employee also suggested why Durov may be treading a careful line: “Let’s not forget that Telegram is headquartered in a mostly neutral Arab country that is friends with its less neutral neighbors.” A location tag on an Instagram post dated October 19 shows Durov was recently in Saudi Arabia, as was Perekopsky, according to a photo of Riyadh he posted to Telegram Stories.

When asked how staff would feel about the extreme content on the platform and Telegram’s role in the current crisis, the developer responded: “I don't care about this organizational boringness. I write code. That's what I do. I don't moderate content and I don't solve human problems, I only solve technical ones.”

Elies Campo, who directed Telegram’s growth, business, and partnerships from 2015 to 2021, argues that Durov has chosen to “maximize” amplification of content on his platform. Public channels, for example, can have an unlimited number of subscribers while private groups can reach 200,000 people, far more than WhatsApp’s 1,024-member limit.

Telegram also has built-in tools for spreading content to other platforms: “Being able to upload any type of file of up to 2 GB enables Telegram to become a bridge for content between social networks and other platforms, and we've seen this in recent events,” Campo says. “These features are fantastic in a healthy society with no bad actors, but in today's world, any good product with such a large audience will have a complete representation of the good and the bad in humanity.”

Axel Neff, who helped cofound Telegram and worked at VK, the Russian social network Durov used to run, believes that Durov sees Telegram as an almost neutral, public utility: “He very much views it as a tool of the people.” Neff claims his old boss accepts there will always be both good users and bad users—but that Durov believes good people will prevail against bad people. “They use Telegram to communicate safely, and reliably. And in situations like the [current conflict in the] Middle East, they ideally warn each other of danger which might hopefully save some lives,” Neff says.

Ultimately, Telegram’s employees are “stretched very thin and not positioned to handle situations like this,” Neff says. (As of February 2023, there were only 60 employees.) “The almost nonexistent trust and safety team in no way can keep up with the daily global chaos they are now faced with at the scale they’ve become,” Neff adds.

Unlike other platforms, Telegram does not appear to have a codified process for dealing with crises like this, instead tending to make changes under intense legal or media pressure. Anton Rozenberg—who worked with Durov from the early days of VK in 2007, before, he says, becoming director of special areas, which involved anti-spam work, at Telegram from 2016 to 2017—is clear about who makes the decisions at Telegram. “Moderation rules, especially in high-profile cases, are set by Pavel himself,” Rozenberg claims.

Based on prior examples, Durov appears to have an aversion to interfering or taking sides in political and international crises, based more on pragmatism than principle. “First of all, he’s worried about the size of the audience. And if he started blocking channels or content with pro-Palestine and/or pro-Israel positions, he would be blamed by huge parts of Telegram's audience in a lot of countries, that he supported another side of the conflict,” Rozenberg claims. “So, it’s just business.”

Finding a Balance

As Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg might attest, the leader of a major social media platform is often damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Many people who are distrustful of official narratives in the Israel-Hamas crisis are depending on Telegram for unfiltered information. It’s also a free space compared to other major platforms. Maria Rashed says that many believe Instagram has been censoring and shadow-banning pro-Palestinian accounts, some of which had resorted to burying the #IStandWithIsrael hashtag in posts to get seen. Meta, which owns Instagram, said it had fixed a number of bugs that may have been causing such issues.

Nadim Nashif, a Palestinian digital rights activist, wasn’t just thinking about Hamas when he read Durov’s October 13 post about not blocking channels. “That means that Telegram is also not going to shut Israeli channels inciting [violence],” Nashif tells me via video call from his home in the northern Israeli city of Haifa. Nashif and 7amleh, the civil rights organization he leads, have been documenting cases of Palestinians being threatened by Israeli channels and groups on Telegram since the conflict began. Doxing is rife, and attacks, arrests, and threats against their jobs are increasing. Nashif has also seen Israeli channels mocking murdered Palestinians. “Horrible videos you don’t want to see,” Nashif says, grimacing. “People abusing the [dead] bodies, making jokes …”

Back in May 2021, when there was an outbreak of violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories, Nashif recalls that activists were able to persuade some social media platforms to remove racist comments and hate speech, especially against Palestinians living in Israel. “But the feeling now is that [Telegram is] not closing anything,” Nashif says. He’s conferred with other digital activist colleagues from organizations like Access Now, who have been escalating cases with contacts at Telegram. “But nobody’s answering,” he says.

“I think that the owner and leadership of the company are very aware that this is bringing to them millions of people and subscribers,” Nashif alleges. “I think it's part of the business model.” The leaders of companies like Telegram are not stupid, Nashif adds: “They have reached this decision that maybe it's better to have a controversial platform where more people keep joining and engaging with what's happening there.”

It remains to be seen whether Hamas’ channels will stay up on Telegram. On Android, people now see a message telling them that two of the main Hamas-run channels, including Qassam Brigades, cannot be displayed on “Telegram apps downloaded from the Google Play Store.” Hamas-run channels are also now blocked on iOS. Such blocks can be circumvented, however. Telegram instructs Android users who want “fewer restrictions'' to download the app directly from its website. People wanting to get around restrictions and view blocked Hamas channels can also purchase anonymous Telegram numbers at auction using a Telegram-approved cryptocurrency called Toncoin; download the messenger via Telegram’s website and then log in via anonymous numbers.

In the European Union, regulators have warned social media platforms against content that contravenes its Digital Services Act. A spokesman for the European Commission told WIRED that they are in contact with Telegram, without offering details. After a recent meeting of the European Union Internet Forum and pressure from Germany, Hamas’ Telegram channels are now blocked in a number of EU member states.

Even if Hamas is definitively removed from Telegram, it will find other ways to share its message. The group is trialing a rudimentary app for keeping people updated on the latest news and announcements from the Qassam Brigades—another example of its expanded technical capabilities. “Hamas seems to be preparing for their communications to be disrupted in the event that Telegram does remove the group,” says Mashkoor.

Whatever happens, as Telegram continues to develop into the de facto platform for witnessing war in real-time, unfiltered and unmoderated, it is changing the way the world experiences violent conflict.

As October 7 ended, Maria Rashed cried herself to sleep. “Because you’re receiving so much information at once and you don’t know what to feel,” she says. “I’m seeing my Israeli friends struggling and they’re losing people that they love. But I’m a Palestinian at the same time.” She fears how Israel will respond and the repercussions for friends in the West Bank and Gaza.

Benjakob, who viewed scores of violent videos released by Hamas on Telegram on October 7, spent the rest of the morning trying to ground himself in his local community. Accompanied by his wife, he went to their favorite café in Jaffa: “The Palestinians from Jaffa who are my neighbors made a massive effort to talk to us,” he says. “We ended up sitting for three hours with Palestinian people we’d never spoken to before.” It was a very Tel Aviv–Yafo type of statement, he says, one that declared: “We refuse to be enemies.”