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Telegram's icon is a paper plane. Photo: Microsiervos/Flickr Lic: CC BY 2.0

Welcome to the Telegram climate misinformation jungle

Is the Telegram app more prone to climate denialism than other social media?
Is the Telegram app more prone to climate denialism than other social media?

In January 2021, Telegram, a private message and chat application for mobile phones became the most downloaded non-gaming app in the world with more than 63 million new users. 

The software allows exchanging encrypted messages, creating group chats and setting up public channels. Some of them reach thousands and even millions of followers.  

However, the sharp increase in Telegram’s popularity has to do mostly with far-right activists, conspiracy theories’ supporters and climate denialists. They sought shelter from what they regarded as censorship on Facebook and Twitter. 

Natascha Chtena, Editor-in-Chief at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Misinformation Review, links Telegram’s soaring popularity to a combination of events. First, at the beginning of January 2021, WhatsApp announced an update in the privacy policy, causing wide-spread criticism. Chtena estimates it brought 25 million users to Telegram. 

Then, following the storming of the US Capitol, Twitter banned Donald Trump’s account. Meanwhile, Amazon, Google and Apple blocked Parler, an alternative platform popular among his supporters. This caused a mass exodus of far-right activists to Telegram.

“When you create a space without any editorial oversight, where people can say whatever they feel like without fear of “censorship”, whether that is your intention or not, you create a haven for misinformation, extremist ideas and hate speech. Without question, many users have found their way to Telegram after bans elsewhere,” Natascha Chtena indicates.

A placard from March for Science, Washington, DC. Lic: CC BY 2.0

Nationalism and climate denialism

Martin Hultman is an Associate Professor at the Chalmers University of Technology. Hultman suggests that the far-right agenda is closely connected with climate denialism. According to him, nationalists and fossil fuel producers are currently two of the main climate sceptic groups in countries such as Norway, Denmark, the UK, France, Sweden and the USA. 

“A total of 63 percent of conservative males in Norway do not believe in anthropogenic climate change. This contrasts the 36 per cent among the rest of the population who deny climate change and global warming,” stated joint research by Olve Krange, Bijorn Kaltenborn and Martin Hultman.

That is why the rise of these political groups on Telegram makes the app a powerful instrument for climate change denial propaganda. 

A range of conservative Telegram channels reviewed by Climate Tracker does contain several posts on climate change denial. The following of the channels reviewed varies between 91,000 and 1,500 users.

At least one of them, named ClimateGate, is dedicated entirely to climate misinformation. The channel even runs quizzes such as: “How many times do solar panels generate more toxic waste than nuclear reactors per unit of energy?”

The full extent of climate misinformation on Telegram is hard to measure due to its fragmented nature. In December 2020, a German fact-check organization CORRECTIV.Faktencheck discovered a full-fledged disinformation campaign promoting anti-science rhetoric. A network of roughly 650 Telegram channels localized around different cities in Germany was the focus of the campaign.

“I would expect a misinformer’s behaviour to be the same on all platforms. However, the size of the user base on a platform determines how many people they are able to reach. Such generalization applies to climate change denialism as well”, says Abhishek Samantray. Samantray is a doctoral student at IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca.

A social media libertarian haven

Climate misinformation has long been plaguing social media. However, major internet platforms are trying to address this issue by moderating content and adding warning signs to controversial posts.

For example, in March 2021, Facebook started to label posts about climate change. The banner directed users to the Climate Science Information Center with accurate data on the topic. 

But Telegram was built on different premises. Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov started the app in 2013.

Telegram’s founder Pavel Durov. Photo: TechCrunch. Lic: CC BY 2.0

In The New York Times interview, Durov claimed that he had the idea of a secured messenger service when in 2011 he noticed a SWAT team at his door in Saint-Petersburg. This made him realise that millions of people living under authoritarian rule needed an encrypted and completely free from censorship channel of communication.

So, it is no wonder that, in its first years, Telegram was especially popular in Russia and Iran. But the app does not differentiate between a cry for freedom in authoritarian countries and marginalised views in democratic societies.

The messenger’s admins only delete calls for violence, illegal pornography, spam and scam. Everything else is permitted. 

How to counter misinformation in social media

Natascha Chtena points out that, ultimately, the responsibility for countering misinformation lies on editorial boards of social media networks. 

“Social media need to invest resources in content moderation training and offer mental health support for their moderators who are exposed to toxic content on a daily basis. They need to sit down and have serious, difficult conversations around freedom of expression online. What to take down, what to leave up, and why,” Chtena suggests.

In March 2020, Telegram attracted $1 billion in international investment. Until then, Durov’s own money had been the sole support of the app. Being no longer a one man’s enterprise, Telegram may cease to be an information Wild West in the future.