Telegram, Filtering, and Iran floods

The concealment of digital records in Telegram

The large parts of Iran have been flooding but reaching the contents of Telegram messenger’s channels (via bypassing Telegram filtering) have not diminished among Iranian users although the telegram has been filtered in Iran. Of course, bypassing the filtering for flood victims and the rest of Iranians is not easy and even it slows down Iran’s internet connection, which is already quite slow. So why do not people use other messengers like WhatsApp which is not filtered? In this article, we will discuss it and demonstrate that the Telegram is not just as a messenger for Iranians but it is a combination of the messenger and a special type of social network. Another popularity of the telegram is that the concealment in digital records of human behavior is as simple as possible.

The authors of the article are Ms. Somayyeh Gholami and Mr. Mehran Kazeminia and it is written in Persian and English versions in April 2019.

Persian Article

About a year ago, the telegram was filtered in Iran (the reason for this decision is not the subject of this article). At the same time, people were asked to leave the Telegram and to use non-filtered messengers and in particular domestic messengers. Previously, this happened for some other apps like Facebook and gradually most of the Iranian users were migrating from such filtered apps. But according to a recent report by The Islamic Republic News Agency, or IRNA, Iranian users haven’t left Telegram despite filtering or they reactivated their telegram accounts a few months later after leaving.

Obviously, by bypassing the filtering, Iran’s slow Internet will reduce the speed further and usually interrupt the connection. However, even in the flood-hit zone, people tolerate the difficulties of bypassing the filtering and most of the photos, news, and videos of the flood will be posted by themselves in the Telegram. More surprisingly, a number of top-level government officials, as well as some government agencies, such as television and official news agencies, have resumed their activities in the filtered Telegram and are reporting their flood news and stories in their telegram channels.

The Islamic Republic News Agency, or IRNA

A non-governmental polling Agency in Iran, known as ISPA (Iranian Students Polling Agency) by presenting its latest results announced that before the filtering, about 60% of the Iran population used the Telegram, which reached 47% six months after filtering, but now again, after a year, 56% of Iran population use the telegram.

According to these statistics, about 30% of the Iranian now use Instagram, only 25% use WhatsApp and only 2% use Soroush Messenger (which is a Local Messenger). Note Instagram, WhatsApp, and Soroush are not filtered and do not have a problem of bypassing filtering, but they still have a much fewer user than the Telegram.

ISPA (Iranian Students Polling Agency)

A year ago, the Telegram was also filtered in Russia, and Russian users were forced to bypass the filtering. The methods of bypassing filtering in Russia and Iran seem to be similar. Recently, Telegram Analytics announced that in 2019, 67000 Russian users were asked about the method of bypassing the Telegram filtering (Use of the circumvention software, VPN, etc.) and the results of the study are presented.

Telegram Analytics

In the following, we examine the reasons for the popularity of the Telegram, and we look at the type of communication in the telegram. However, let’s not forget that a dedicated social network with messenger has been formed on the Telegram platform, and the most basic issue for a social network is the type of network connection that can be the root of network problems. Talking about the relationship of people on social networks is just as important as the connection of people in real-world affairs, and the Telegram experience can be beneficial to everyone.

Why do Iranians still use Telegram after it was filtered?

After filtering, the telegram cannot compete with its unfiltered rivals like WhatsApp in terms of speed and ease of use. Obviously bypassing the filtering has a negative impact on the internet speed and ease of use of an app. Also, circumvention tools sometimes reduce application security. Even recently, unofficial versions of the Telegram which are advertised as anti-filtering, unfortunately, at the moment of downloading and installing, gain a lot of user’s phone accessibilities and controls. To the extent that after downloading, without users ‘awareness, they send advertisements through the users’ smartphones to different groups of Telegrams! Meanwhile, by controlling the cell phone of users, other things might be done that users are unaware of it. So the reasons for the popularity of telegrams after filtering cannot be speed, convenience or security.

In our opinion, the reasons for the popularity of the telegram can be defined in three parts; the first part is that in addition to the possibility to create groups, it is also possible to create public channels. The possibilities such as using bots with artificial intelligence, using the webTelegram, desktop app, and mobile app version simultaneously, are other features of the Telegram. All of these features have brought about a strong social network formed by Iranians, along with the use of Telegram as a simple messenger. So the substitute for the telegram can’t be just a simple messenger but the first condition is that the replacement should be a combination of Messenger and a desired social network for the people. Meanwhile, we have already examined the nature and concept of the Telegram Network in another article, and even in that article, we wrote about the necessity of Telegram public channels’ contents accessibility to the search engines. Here is the link of the article:

The second part is about users’ inertia. Anyway, the Telegram has been advertised and its usage has been explained for several years directly and indirectly on the official Iranian national TV, and so on. Almost all people are familiar with it and have downloaded Telegram apps on their phone. Now, choosing another messenger application, it will no longer be a personal decision, because the rest of people may not have the same opinion and her/his connection will be discontinued. In other words, in the eyes of the majority of people in society, a new application should be better than filtered Telegram in order to make this change. Of course, this has not happened until today.

The third part relates to the digital records of Telegram users’ behavior. Initially, the users’ profiles of the Telegram are designed and configured based on the pattern of a simple messenger. In the user profile, usually other than one or more images, there is no other user information. The age, the status of education and marriage, the interests, the channels and the groups that have been subscribed, are unknown. Also, unlike other messengers (for example WhatsApp) user’ phone number is hidden from other members of the group or channel in Telegram. Users can join and be active in different channels and express their opinion and feelings, while even their phone numbers are invisible. They can even publish contradictory messages in different groups and still remain somehow anonymous. For example, they set their own messages based on common beliefs in each group and don’t concern their contradictory opinions and feelings aren’t matched. Because each message is recorded only in the same group that is written, it is not even clear that the group members are following which groups or channels and no one can follow others.

In other words, people in the telegram can easily conceal their real political, social and ethical beliefs from some people and by managing their digital records somehow protect themselves. Also, let’s not forget that the telegram is designed as a messenger in the dark part of the Internet, and now, in addition, to being a messenger, is a widespread social network, yet search engines do not have access to any part of the Telegram platform, and thus users even for their secrecy, don’t concern about the information stored in the search engines.

The unethical or ethical nature of this kind of secrecy is not our subject. However, a specific and possibly unique feature for the Telegram, which may have not been deliberately planned, is quite effective on the popularity of the telegram. It should be noted that specialists may be able to hide or manage their digital records on other networks. But for most people, it’s difficult to do it which Telegram makes it easy.

The proper design of future social networks is as important as the setting of constitution laws of real societies and should be based on all today’s experiences. Certainly, the Telegram experience, as a kind of social network, contains many positive and negative points that need to be addressed. Here is the end of the article, we’re eager to receive your comments.

April 2019
Somayyeh Gholami
Mehran Kazeminia


This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +445,678 people.

Subscribe to receive our top stories here.