BBC investigation | Telegram: the explicit images of thousands of women that are shared without their consent on the platform

Thousands of intimate photos of women are being shared and used to harass, shame and threaten them on a massive scale on the instant messaging app Telegram, a BBC investigation reveals.



Short presentational gray line


Sara’s life changed the second she found out a nude photo of her shared by Telegram.

Along with the photo, their Instagram and Facebook profiles and their phone number had been added. Suddenly, unknown men began to contact her asking for more images.

They made me feel like a prostitute because they thought I would share my intimate photos. I felt that she had no value as a woman,” says Sara.

Sarah's photo.

Sara stopped dating after her pictures were shared on Telegram.

Sara had shared her photo with only one person, but it ended up in a Telegram group of 18,000 followers. Among them, many were from her neighborhood in Havana, Cuba. Now Sara fears that many unknown They have seen her naked on the street.

“I didn’t want to go out, or have contact with my friends. The truth is that I suffered a lot.”

Sara, whose name is not her real one, is not alone.

After months of investigating Telegram, the BBC found extensive groups and channels sharing thousands of secret recordings and stolen or leaked images of women in at least 20 countries.

And there is little evidence that the platform is addressing this problem.

“They look at you as if you were a disgrace”

Thousands of miles from Cuba, Nigar is getting used to a new life.

Nigar's photo.

Nigar claims that she has been forced to leave her country.

She comes from Azerbaijan, although she is now being forced to leave her homeland. In 2021, her family received a video of her having sex with her husband. Later, the recording was also published in a Telegram group.

“My mother started crying and told me: ‘There’s a video, they sent it to me,’” she says.

“I was devastated absolutely devastated“, Add.

The video was shared in a group of 40,000 members. In the recording, the face of her now ex-husband is blurred, but hers is clearly seen.

Nigar thinks that her ex secretly filmed her to blackmail his brother, a prominent critic of the Azerbaijani president. Her mother was told that the video would not be posted on Telegram in exchange for her brother stopping his activism.

“They look at you like you’re a disgrace. Who cares if you were married?” Nigar asks.

The victim confronted her ex-husband about the video, but he denied recording it. The BBC tried to contact him, but got no response.

Nigar is having a hard time turning the page.

“I can’t recover. I see therapists twice a week. They tell me that at the moment no progress. They ask me if I can forget it, but I tell them no, ”she says.

expanded problem

The photos of Nigar and Sara were reported to Telegram, but the platform did not respond.

The experience of these two women is far from unique. The BBC has been monitoring 18 channels on Telegram and 24 groups in countries like Russia, Brazil, Kenya or Malaysia. In total, there are almost two million subscribers.

Screenshot of a Telegram channel.


Along with the photographs are also published home addresses and phone numbers.

The BBC has seen group administrators ask their members for intimate photos of ex-girlfriends, colleagues and classmates to send to an automated account. Thus they can be published without revealing the identity of the sender.

A less regulated space

Telegram today has more than 500 million active users around the world, more than Twitter, and many are attracted by the platform’s emphasis on privacy.

In January 2021, after WhatsApp changed its privacy terms, millions of users moved to Telegram.

This platform has long been popular with pro-democracy protesters in countries where the media is censored.

Users can post without sharing their name or phone number, create private and public groups up to 200,000 members and broadcast across channels to an unlimited number of people.

Pro-democracy protesters in Belarus.

Telegram was used to organize massive anti-government protests in Belarus.

Despite Telegram’s reputation for privacy, only the “secret chat” option offers end-to-end encryption, ensuring that only the two people chatting have access to messages.

Other apps like Signal and WhatsApp have this setting by default.

Telegram also attracts users looking for a less regulated spaceincluding those that have been banned from other platforms.

“According to Telegram and its owner, they don’t want to censor users,” says Natalia Krapiva, technology legal counsel at digital rights group Access Now.

However, BBC research shows that this lax approach has seen Telegram become in a paradise to filter and share explicit images.

Less stringent rules

Telegram does not have a policy to discourage the distribution of non-consensual intimate images, but in its terms of use it asks that its users agree “not to publish illegal pornographic content in public channels or bots”.

It also includes a tool within the app itself in public and private groups and channels where users can report pornography.

Screenshot of the Telegram tool to report content.


To test Telegram’s rigor in enforcing its terms, the BBC efound and reported 100 photographs as pornographic through the tool.

One month later, 96 images were still accessible. The other four could not be located, as they were in groups that the BBC could not access again.

While the BBC was investigating these groups, an account from Russia tried to sell him a folder with videos of child abuse for less than the cost of a coffee.

The BBC reported it to both Telegram and the UK Metropolitan Police, but two months later both the publication and the channels were still active. The account was only removed after contacting the Telegram media team.

Despite this lenient moderation, Telegram has indeed taken sides against certain types of content.

After Apple briefly removed Telegram from its app store over videos like the ones offered to the BBC, the platform took a more proactive stance against images of child abuse.

In 2019, this app also cooperated with the European Union crime agency Europol to remove a vast amount of Islamic State content that was proliferating on the platform.

“We know that Telegram can and has removed content linked to terrorism and very radical political material,” says Aliaksandr Herasimenka, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute.

Members of far-right groups, Proud Boys, during a demonstration in Portland, Oregon, in the United States in September 2020.

Members of far-right groups moved to Telegram.

However, the removal of intimate images does not seem to be a priority.

The BBC spoke to five Telegram content moderators on condition of anonymity. They explained that they receive user reports through an automated system that they then classify as “spam” or “not spam.”

They add that do not proactively search for intimate images and, as they understand, Telegram does not do it through some artificial intelligence system either.

independent wrestling

This lack of action has caused some women to take sides for themselves.

Joanna found a nude photo of herself when she was 13 years old in a well-known Telegram group in Malaysia.

Then, created a fake profile to join the group, where he anonymously searched for more nude images to report. Later, she shared her findings with her friends.

In the midst of intense media pressure, the group ended up closing. However, during its investigation, the BBC found at least two duplicate groups sharing the same type of images.

“Sometimes you feel very hopeless, because we have tried very hard to eliminate these groups, but they keep appearing and we don’t know how to stop themJoanna laments.

Telegram declined the BBC’s request for an interview, but a statement said it monitors public spaces and processes user reports of content that violates its terms of use.

The app did not confirm whether posting explicit images of people without consent was allowed on the platform or removed.

The launch of advertisements on some public Telegram channels, as well as other investments, have signaled the possibility that the founder, Pavel Durov, is tryingmonetize the platform.

This is likely to increase pressure on Telegram and its founder to conform more closely to the policies of rivals such as WhatsApp, which have introduced new actions against the distribution of intimate images.

It remains to be seen how long it will take for the company to resist further restraint as it enters new markets and starts turning a profit.

For the women whose reputations have been destroyed and their lives damaged by the distribution of their intimate photographs, the changes will not come in time.

Remember that you can receive notifications from BBC World. Download the new version of our app and activate it so you don’t miss out on our best content.