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A ban in Brazil got Telegram to reverse its position on content moderation

Telegram's paper airplane logo is displayed against a backdrop of scattered keys from a keyboard.
REUTERS/Dado Ruvic
Telegram’s paper airplane logo is displayed against a backdrop of scattered keys from a keyboard.
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Telegram is the last major social network that refuses to moderate misinformation. The app, which has over 500 million users, is run by a libertarian founder and a small team of programmers who are philosophically opposed to taking down almost any content (unless it incites violence or spreads child porn). Its public channels have become a haven for conspiracy theorists and extremists who have been kicked out of other platforms, like Facebook and Twitter.

But a ban in Brazil has forced Telegram to reverse its position on content moderation. On March 18, Brazil’s Supreme Court ordered internet service providers and Apple and Google’s app stores to block access to Telegram because it had ignored the court’s orders to take down accounts spreading misinformation. Two days later, the court lifted its ban after Telegram deleted posts from Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, banned an account from a Bolsonaro supporter accused of spreading misinformation, and vowed to begin monitoring the 100 most popular channels in Brazil for viral lies.

Telegram grows but struggles to fundraise

Telegram has grown, in part, because it takes a more laissez-faire stance on content moderation than its competitors. The app saw its biggest spike in downloads in January 2021, shortly after Facebook and Twitter banned former US president Donald Trump for inciting a riot at the US Capitol; over the next few days, far-right influencers promoted their “censorship-free” public channels on Telegram and attracted millions of followers.

Telegram is grappling with its position on content moderation at a critical inflection point for the company. As the app’s user base has grown quickly over the past year, its founders hope to capitalize on that growth with a stock listing in 2023. But their efforts to grow and monetize Telegram could be stymied if courts and lawmakers in important markets like Brazil block the app over its lax moderation practices.

Telegram learns from the moderation struggles at Reddit and Parler

Telegram does not yet generate revenue. Founder Pavel Durov has funded Telegram since its 2013 launch with the fortune he made developing VK, a Russian Facebook clone, as well by selling $1 billion worth of bonds that could be converted into stock upon an IPO to private investors last year. Telegram competes against encrypted messaging apps like Signal and WhatsApp, but it also features public channels with millions of followers that fill a niche closer to platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

Durov is reportedly planning to list Telegram on the stock market next year to raise money. Like right-wing Twitter clone Parler, Telegram appears to be learning the lesson that platforms can’t survive long without meaningful content moderation. And like Reddit, Telegram is now taking steps to clean up its content ahead of an IPO.

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