On the morning of 7 October 2023, an unprecedented event unfolded in the Middle East: members of Palestinian armed groups, namely the terror groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, breached the Israeli border fence from Gaza, launching violent attacks on military bases, villages, and a music festival. While traditional news outlets were grappling to catch up with the rapidly unfolding events, social media platforms, particularly Telegram, surged ahead with real-time footage of the attacks. Many people in the region migrated to Telegram channels in their native languages, which provided dozens of updates every minute – the official Hamas channel sent 1,145 messages on 7 October alone. An overwhelming amount of the footage that appeared in the aftermath of the attack originated from Telegram channels. This Insight addresses the role of these channels as providers of information and their harmful influence on their viewers.
Shaping Opinions – Dehumanisation, Legitimisation and Division
Telegram, a popular messaging platform, primarily employs two methods to foster audience engagement on its channels: reactions and comments. The reaction feature, released in 2022, is highly user-friendly; a tap on an emoji instantly reflects the audience’s sentiment, incrementing the count associated with that specific emotion.
Emojis, by their very nature, are subjective and open to interpretation, and their presence in the context of news consumption may have unprecedented effects. Especially when juxtaposed with content that’s already sensitive and divisive, these symbols can influence a user’s perception, subconsciously nudging them toward a particular emotional response when faced with a piece of content. This becomes even more problematic when the content in question is being consumed in rapid-fire, displaying deeply disturbing images or news at an overwhelming pace. Such a barrage of information can lead to information overload, which, combined with the influence of emoji reactions, can likely foster a sense of apathy in the audience. Rather than critically analysing content or questioning its veracity, viewers may begin to passively accept it at face value, allowing the available emoji reactions to guide their feelings.
A profound element underpinning the impact of emoji reactions and user comments on platforms like Telegram is the concept of social influence. At its core, social influence suggests that individuals gauge public sentiment through the lens of other users’ comments. This perceived public sentiment then shapes their own views, often causing them to conform to what they believe is the prevailing opinion.
It’s essential to note that many people oppose the terror Hamas enacted on 7 October. However, the deluge of content, combined with the guiding force of emoji reactions, may inadvertently press them to absorb these perspectives into their opinion — even if it’s not reflective of their genuine beliefs. A post depicting the harrowing aftermath of an attack, for instance, might be accompanied by a cascade of emojis that seem to cheer or celebrate. Viewers, even if initially shocked or appalled, could find themselves eventually dehumanising the victims they see in the videos as a result of gradual desensitisation. They might even begin to perceive such content positively, primarily because the emojis suggest that’s the ‘right’ way to feel.
Compounding the issue is the substantial reach of some of the Telegram posts. Many garner tens or even hundreds of thousands of views within hours of being posted. Yet, only a fraction of viewers might react using emojis (Note Fig. 5 where 0.08% of viewers reacted to the broadcast). This small minority inadvertently becomes the emotional compass for the majority, dictating how individuals will internalise and remember these images and videos and their emotional associations.
Platform Politics – Telegram’s Position
On 10 October, the ‘Gaza Now’ Telegram channel announced that, unlike other social media platforms, Telegram refused to take down Palestinian channels disseminating content related to the ongoing conflict (Fig. 6). Many channels have already tripled or quadrupled their pre-conflict subscriber counts — Gaza Now has notably grown from 350k subscribers to 1.4 million as of 15 October.
Telegram’s founder, Pavel Durov, has defended the platform’s decision to keep Palestinian channels related to the recent developments in the Hamas-Israel War active. When defending his stance, Durov pointed to a single instance where Telegram played a role in humanitarian communication when Hamas used the platform to warn civilians in the Israeli city of Ashkelon to evacuate before missile strikes. Abu Obaida, the spokesperson of Hamas’ military wing, issued a warning on the Hamas Telegram channel (Fig. 7), setting a 5 pm deadline for citizens of Ashkelon to leave, a city with a population of 132,000. This warning was published two hours prior to the deadline.
It’s important to note that rocket attacks by Hamas on civilian populations are against international humanitarian law. Durov’s stance, which appears to downplay this reality, raises concerns about the platform’s impartiality. His defence could be interpreted as a form of disinformation, potentially legitimising psychological warfare under the guise of humanitarian concerns that do not align with the actions of Hamas, as evidenced by their ongoing rocket barrages against Ashkelon and other Israeli cities without prior warning.
Moreover, Durov’s assertions that Telegram channels are unlikely to “significantly amplify propaganda”, overlook their considerable impact as primary sources of news for innumerable ordinary civilians—a fact even acknowledged by Durov himself. Misinformation and propaganda, particularly in the current conflict, are rampantly spread throughout social media. This has become a matter of global attention, with the European Union notably emphasising the urgency of addressing this issue. Telegram, is no exception to this trend.
On 13 October, six days into the war, Gaza Now quietly made the decision to disable emoji reactions and retroactively remove them from all previous posts. The motive behind this remains unclear. However, what is evident is that as the channel experienced exponential growth throughout the week, the reaction feature became increasingly contentious. The simplistic nature of emoji reactions can easily become a tool for sabotage; opponents, possibly driven by partisan motives or disagreement with the channel’s bias, can ‘raid’ channels with provocative emojis, such as those symbolising vomit, celebration, and pigs. This phenomenon was observed on multiple channels. What started in isolation quickly triggered a snowball effect, leading to many more reactions of the same nature.
The next day, the channel implemented a revised reaction policy. Users are now only allowed to react using a limited set of emojis, specifically the thumbs-up and thumbs-down symbols (Fig. 8). Interestingly, this policy shift was accompanied by the activation of the comments function on the channel. Retroactively, posts that had once featured a spectrum of emoji reactions were reinstated with their original reaction counts. However, these reactions were now confined to the thumbs-up and thumbs-down symbols, along with two variations of hearts. This shift from a broad spectrum of emojis to a more limited set of reactions, coupled with the introduction of comments, represents a conscious attempt to control and contain the discourse surrounding the content shared on the channel.
The landscape of news consumption is undergoing a profound transformation in the digital age. Traditional hallmarks of responsible journalism like objectivity and impartiality seem to be shifting away from the forefront of news audiences’ priorities. This shift is starkly evidenced by the exponential growth of audiences on Telegram channels affiliated with terrorist organisations, as well as the proliferation of channels on the Israeli side, often operated by anonymous individuals or small groups.
These facts should serve as a wake-up call in conversations about the responsibility of Telegram as a primary platform for disseminating information to mass audiences, both directly and indirectly. Unlike US-based tech companies, Telegram’s jurisdictional status makes it less susceptible to legal interventions. Now more than ever, the mechanisms through which information is shared and consumed must be scrutinised. This analysis reveals how platforms like Telegram can inadvertently fuel extremist thought, perpetuate divisiveness, and influence perceptions, especially in the context of sensitive and highly charged conflicts.
This Insight is part of a larger ongoing research of Israeli and Palestinian partisan news channels on Telegram and their ethical and societal implications.
Uri Klempner is a Cyber Politics graduate student at Tel Aviv University. He previously interned at the International Institute of Counterterrorism and holds a BA in Government, majoring in Counterterrorism & Homeland Security from Reichman University.