Burmese influencer Han Nyein Oo rose to prominence in 2020, posting memes and gossip about Burmese celebrities on Facebook to an audience that grew to several hundred thousand people in Myanmar by early 2021. Then, after the country’s military seized power that February, he lurched rightwards, becoming a full-blooded supporter of the junta, which has killed more than 1,500 people and arrested thousands more in bloody crackdowns.
He was soon banned from Facebook for violating its terms of service, so he moved to Telegram, the encrypted messaging app and social sharing platform. There, he posted messages of support for the military, graphic pictures of murdered civilians, and doctored pornographic images purporting to be female opposition figures. Often, these were cross-posted in other channels run by a network of pro-junta influencers, reaching tens of thousands of users.
This year, Han Nyein Oo moved on to direct threats. Opponents of the junta planned to mark the anniversary of the coup on February 1 with a “silent strike,” closing businesses and staying home to leave the streets abandoned. On his Telegram channel, Han Nyein Oo raged, asking his followers to send him photos of shops and businesses that were planning to shut. They obliged, and he began posting the images and addresses to his 100,000 followers. Dozens of premises were raided by police. Han Nyein Oo claimed credit. He did not respond to a request to comment.
“That was the start of the doxing campaign,” says Wai Phyo Myint, a Burmese digital rights activist. “Since then there’s been an escalation.”
Over the past eight months, Han Nyein Oo’s Telegram channels, and those of other pro-coup figures, including self-defined journalist Thazin Oo and influencers Kyaw Swar and Sergeant Phoe Si, have doxed hundreds of people that they accuse of siding with the resistance movement, from high-profile celebrities to small business owners and students. Dozens have since been arrested or been killed in vigilante violence.
Han Nyein Oo’s channel was taken down in March after it was reported for breaching Telegram’s rules on disseminating pornography, but within days he had started another. It now has more than 70,000 followers.
Telegram’s doxing problem goes far beyond Myanmar. WIRED spoke to activists and experts in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe who said that the platform has ignored their warnings about an epidemic of politically motivated doxing, allowing dangerous content to proliferate, leading to intimidation, violence, and deaths.
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In a Telegram message, company spokesperson Remi Vaughn said: “Since its launch, Telegram has actively moderated harmful content on its platform—including the publication of private information. Our moderators proactively monitor public parts of the app as well as accepting user reports in order to remove content that breaches our terms.”
Telegram, which now claims more than 700 million active users worldwide, has a publicly stated philosophy that private communications should be beyond the reach of governments. That has made it popular among people living under authoritarian regimes all over the world (and among conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, and “sovereign citizens” in democratic countries.)
But the service’s structure—part encrypted messaging app, part social media platform—and its almost complete lack of active moderation has made it “the perfect tool” for the kind of doxing campaigns occurring in Myanmar, according to digital rights activist Victoire Rio.
This structure makes it easy for users to crowdsource attacks, posting a target for doxing and encouraging their followers to dig up or share private information, which they can then broadcast more widely. Misinformation or doxing content can move seamlessly from anonymous individual accounts to channels with thousands of users. Cross-posting is straightforward, so that channels can feed off one another, creating a kind of virality without algorithms that actively promote harmful content. “Structurally, it’s suited to this use case,” Rio says.
The first mass use of this tactic occurred during Hong Kong’s massive 2019 democracy protests, when pro-Beijing Telegram channels identified demonstrators and sent their information to the authorities. Hundreds of protesters were sentenced to custodial sentences for their role in the demonstrations. But with the city split along “yellow” (pro-protests) and “blue” (pro-police) lines, channels were also set up to dox police officers and their families. In November 2020, a telecom company employee was jailed for two years after doxing police and government employees over Telegram. Since then, Telegram doxing appears to be spreading to new countries.
In Iraq, militia groups and their supporters have become adept at using Telegram to source information about opponents, such as leaders of civil society groups, which they then broadcast on channels with tens of thousands of followers. Sometimes, bounties are offered for information, according to Hayder Hamzoz, founder of the Iraqi Network for Social Media, an organization that tracks social media use in the country. Often, these come with direct or implicit threats of violence. Targets have faced harassment and violence, and some have had to flee their homes, Hamzoz says.
Hamzoz works with a help line to assist activists who are targeted on social media. He said that the use of Telegram for doxing began in late 2019. “Since then the level increased, I can say, more than 400 percent,” he said. “There are too many examples.”
WIRED saw several posts, including those in channels with tens of thousands of followers, that published personal information, including phone numbers and work addresses, of individuals. Hamzoz has been targeted on multiple occasions, with posts accusing him of being a spy for the US government. He says that he has shared these posts with Telegram.
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In Eastern Europe, where Telegram is a popular platform, several large doxing campaigns have increased in scale and frequency since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Ukrainians have been using Telegram to release the private information of Russian soldiers, politicians, and alleged collaborators and spies, according to open source intelligence experts studying the conflict, who asked to remain anonymous. Russian channels, meanwhile, have been doxing people fighting for Ukraine, often accusing them of being Nazis. Project Nemesis, a large Russian doxing operation, runs a very active Telegram channel, releasing phone numbers, addresses, and other personal information about Ukrainian soldiers.
Activists in countries where doxing has become widespread accuse Telegram of turning a blind eye to the problem.
In Myanmar, WIRED saw a submission sent to Telegram by activists documenting multiple occasions where private information was being shared alongside threats of violence. These were being cross-posted into a channel associated with a violent vigilante group, where triumphant messages accompanied graphic images of corpses marked with the group’s logo. “What we have seen so far is zero response,” says Wai Phyo Myint.
Activists in the country have sent Telegram detailed information about the individuals behind the most dangerous channels, asking them to follow the example of Facebook, which works with civil society to identify malicious actors, rather than focusing just on individual pieces of harmful content.
“We are trying to do as much of the work for them, saying this actor is intentionally weaponizing your platform, this actor has been banned by everybody else,” says one activist, who requested anonymity to prevent reprisals. They have had no response from the company.
In Iraq, Hamzoz said that Telegram doesn’t engage with civil society to address harms, and it trails far behind other platforms in its efforts to deal with doxing and threats issued to its users. His organization runs a help line for activists in the country, assisting them when they’re targeted online. When that happens on Instagram or Facebook, more often than not they can get the content removed fairly quickly. “When we see it on Telegram, we tell the person ‘Sorry, we will file the report, but don't expect any engagement from Telegram. We are expecting that this [content] will remain.’”
Experts in social media moderation who have studied Telegram told WIRED that they doubt the company is willing to or capable of systematically addressing its doxing problem. They said that the company, which is thought to employ only a few dozen people worldwide, discloses very little about its corporate structure and publicly names only a handful of its employees. But it has dramatically outgrown its infrastructure. Unlike other platforms, which employ in-house and outsourced moderators (and still struggle to tackle issues of disinformation and harmful content), Telegram has a philosophical, as well as a practical resistance to moderation.
“It’s not just a failure of the platform,” says Aliaksandr Herasimenka, a postdoctoral researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute. “It’s a deliberate stance.”