How Telegram Became the Anti-Facebook

Elies Campo was in his family's home in Tortosa, Spain, on January 6, 2021, when Trump supporters gathered near the Washington Monument. Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, is the highlight of the holiday season, when family arrive and children exchange gifts. 38-year-old Spanish engineer Campo had been away from home since the coronavirus outbreak began. Campo was surrounded by uncles, aunts, and cousins, and he held some of their babies for the first time. His thoughts was far from America.

At 8 pm, a buddy in the US asked Campo if he'd seen the news from Washington, DC. Then followed a flood of messages concerning the Capitol crowd. Campo wondered how the violence would damage his company as he watched on his phone.

Campo worked at Telegram, a global messaging software and social network. Now, he discovered that far-right leaders were publishing links to their Telegram channels on other social media sites and asking their followers to join.

Campo went upstairs to his room to browse social media on his laptop and phone. Within six hours, Facebook and Twitter disabled Trump's posts, and Campo watched as pro-Trump figures flocked to Telegram, bringing their followers with them. He mumbled Déu meu—My God—in Catalan.

Telegram is a social media outlier. It sometimes rounds out lists of the world's 10 largest platforms, yet it has just 30 core staff, had no source of recurring revenue until recently, and performs essentially little content moderation, except for illegal pornography and calls for murder. Telegram's platform should be accessible to anyone, regardless of politics or philosophy, is a marketing pitch. Pavel Durov, Telegram's founder, remarked, "Telegram is a concept." It's the belief that everyone should be free.

As Telegram's head of growth, business, and partnerships, Campo faced its problems. In the mid-2010s, when Telegram became the "app of choice" for terrorists, Campo worried about ISIS' use of the network. When messaging Durov, he often gets uneasy. Campo: "I nag." How the flood of insurrection-adjacent Americans would play in the media and with business partners worried him.

So he emailed Durov. "Good evening Pavel," it began. "Have you seen the US? Trump's social media accounts have been blocked, right? He warned that the US far right's adoption of Telegram may "possibly eclipse" a more favourable tale that was driving a surge of new users to the network.

WhatsApp upgraded its privacy and terms of service the same week as Telegram. Many users believed they'd have to share more information with WhatsApp's parent company, Facebook. The new policy didn't force customers to submit more data than they previously had (their phone number, their profile names, certain metadata). Many of WhatsApp's 2 billion users were frightened, and millions left for Telegram.

Durov dismissed Campo's worries about Trump supporters, he says. Compared to WhatsApp's TOS adjustment, this is trivial, Campo recalls Durov saying. If needed, the CEO may publish on his own Telegram channel. Unassuaged, Campo stayed up late watching screens.

In the days that followed, journalists asked Campo about the far right's use of Telegram. He sent them to Durov and suggested he talk to the media. Durov took to his public channel on January 8 to praise Telegram's global success and criticize Facebook, which he said had a staff dedicated to figuring out "why Telegram is so popular." Durov celebrated 25 million new users in 72 hours on January 12. He said Telegram had 500 million users. Durov: "We've had download surges before." It's different this time. Two days later, he said, "We may be experiencing the largest digital migration ever."