How Telegram became the main channel for spreading disinformation about the war in Ukraine


Original article (in Croatian) was published on 01/06/2022

Over the years, the application and social network Telegram has increased its number of users, thus promising them privacy, although some experts question this.

The Russian-Ukrainian conflict is as digital as it is physical. Faktograf has already written about the propaganda war led on social networks, media and communication applications. Social networks have enabled the rapid dissemination of information, but at the same time, we are exposed to a multitude of propaganda, disinformation and misinformation on both sides.

On the one hand, there is a narrative that Russia is trying to impose, claiming that it is a “special military operation” aimed at liberating Ukraine from Nazism. On the other hand, there is a narrative propagated by Ukrainians, who skillfully use the position of a victim of Russian aggression to send messages aimed at raising the morale of Ukrainian citizens and fighters and securing the support of the international community. The current conflict is hard to imagine without social networks and applications, and at the center of the (digital) conflict is one application – Telegram.

Telegram was popular among Ukrainians and Russians even before the conflict began. It was designed in 2013 by brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov, who are also behind the social network VK (Russian: ВКонтакте), Russia’s counterpart to Facebook. Pavel Durov, also known as ‘Russian Mark Zuckerberg’ who is branded as a protector of users ’privacy rights, sold his remaining stakes in the VK network in April 2014 and left Russia (CNBC), claiming he refused to provide the government with data on Ukrainian protesters. Telegram thus emerged as Durov’s attempt to bypass the Kremlin and its control, although Novaya Gazeta wrote in 2013 about a meeting between Durov and Vladislav Surkov, then deputy head of Vladimir Putin’s office, implying that Durov was not so independent of the Kremlin. Durov will later admit that he met with Surkov several times but also claim that the insinuations that this means that he delivered data on VK (Politico) users to the Kremlin are not accurate.

Masa Borak is a freelance journalist who specializes in technology reporting. Borak says that “Telegram has always been popular in Russia, but it has experienced tremendous growth since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as many Western social networks, such as Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and Instagram, have been blocked. Data from the analytical company Brand Analytics show that users have migrated from foreign to local social networks such as VKontakte or Odnoklassniki”.

It’s easy to understand why, Borak says. “Although Russians often use VPNs to peek into their Instagram accounts, when you scroll through social media, it’s an extra step that many often can’t take to access an app or website that’s blocked”.

What is Telegram?

Telegram is generally considered, in addition to the Signal application, to be a more secure communication channel than, for example, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, which is also owned by Meta (although all these applications now offer users encrypted communication). Telegram stores data on the cloud; the data is encrypted and then distributed through a number of data centers around the world. Data can be decrypted, although it is difficult.

However, although Telegram is (allegedly) a very secure application, the messages are not fully encrypted, which means that, in theory, the company could access the content of the messages, sell it, or be forced to hand over the data to the government. Telegram does not even use the ‘gold standard’ of encryption, the so-called ‘end-to-end’ encryption. End-to-end encryption means that the message can only be seen by the sender and recipient of the message, but it is only available in Telegram when the Secret Chat feature is used. Video and voice calls are fully encrypted.

Since group chats and channels on Telegram are not fully encrypted, some security experts fear that Telegram is not as secure an application as it appears. One feature Telegram has that sets it apart from WhatsApp is anonymous forwarding. When a user enables this feature, forwarded messages can no longer be associated with the sender.

Likewise, although a mobile phone number is required to create an account on Telegram, this number does not have to remain linked to the account, which is not the case with WhatsApp, where an active link to a mobile phone number always exists.

Groups and channels

In addition to functioning as an application for private correspondence, Telegram also has elements of a social network: it enables the formation of private and public groups that can receive up to a maximum of 200,000 users where they can then send messages and communicate with each other. It is possible to open the so-called ‘channels’ that function as a one-way communication to subscribers (they can respond to comments and comment on posts, if allowed). Unlike Facebook, Twitter and other popular social networks, there is no advertising on Telegram, and the flow of information is not directed by algorithms (NPR).

At the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, Telegram became an increasingly popular application through which unmoderated “updates” about the war were disseminated. Although it is used by many Russians, the application is very popular in Ukraine – more than 70 percent of Ukrainians use Telegram (Politico).

What sets this app apart from the competition is the feature ‘channels’. In practice, this means that public or private people have their own ‘feed’ where they can post photos and videos. Thus, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has a channel on Telegram where he publishes his announcements, videos and photos from destroyed cities in Ukraine. The ‘UkraineNOW’ channel serves as an effective means of communication and information. This channel, which has a million followers, also shares video posts and photos but also warns of bombings in various cities.

Telegram is not a foreign medium to Zelensky (TIME). He used it as early as 2019 in his presidential campaign to organize and gather volunteers, and he often published exclusive information on it. When the war broke out, he could rely on existing infrastructure and followers and use his channel to recruit online volunteers and foreign fighters.

UkraineNOW is the existing channel of the Ukrainian government which was initially used to inform the public about the COVID-19 epidemic – now the same official channel where citizens have read information about the pandemic 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the past two years, informs them about everything related to the war conflict.

A real social network

Borak points out another reason why Telegram is so popular, “and that is that many people who have a large number of followers, whether they are influencers or public figures, have switched to that platform and their followers have followed them. It should be borne in mind that Telegram is no longer just an application for sending messages like WhatsApp. Over the years, it has become a real social network. People use it to subscribe to official accounts (channels) that interest them or gather in private or public groups that sometimes have thousands of members. New data from Brand Analytics from May shows, for example, that the number of owners of official accounts has increased by 23 percent in the last three months”, the journalist points out.

However, due to a lack of content moderation, communication applications like Telegram have become a central place for spreading conspiracy theories like QAnon as well as other extreme-right groups promoting right-wing ideas (Guardian, Politico) but also propaganda content.

Telegram easily capitalizes on any problems on other social networks, so during one crash of Facebook in November last year, it gained 70 million users in just one day (Guardian), and user number jumped even when WhatsApp changed its privacy policy.

Propaganda, but also dissonant tones

Three years ago, numerous ISIS groups began to disappear from this application (BBC, Europol), which they used for years to spread their ideas and radicalize potential membership.

However, the end of ISIS on Telegram did not mean the end of the problem for that application. Thus, after the attack in Christchurch, extreme right-wing groups accepted Telegram as their main application (Washington Post). Laissez faire approach to content moderation and specific historical circumstances such as a pandemic or, in this case, a war conflict, further contribute to polarization in the digital world and the spread of extremist content on Telegram.

In Germany, for example, during a pandemic, figures in far-right groups and channels exploded (Wired). Before the pandemic, right-wing ‘big guys’ had about 40,000 followers; now those numbers are at about 200,000.

Telegram was also used extensively during numerous protests, such as those in Belarus, Iran and Hong Kong. Although during the Hong Kong protests, protesters were allowed to hide their cell phone numbers from the authorities (Reuters), Telegram is also a hotbed of disinformation and misinformation, including those about the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

Durov himself recognized this problem, so a few days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he said that the channels on that application were becoming a source of unverified information and that he did not want the application to be used as a tool that could deepen the conflict (Reuters).

Telegram is used by many pro-Kremlin propagandists, but on the other hand, there are many journalists, other independent observers, as well as ordinary users. Various bots spread misinformation, often posing as fake “war correspondents”. On March 6, the Russian government’s official Telegram channel announced that “government agencies are recommended to make accounts on Telegram and VK”. The Ukrainian government, on the other hand, recognizing the danger posed by Russian bots and accounts, published a list of accounts that spread disinformation and characterized it as “information terrorism.”

Telegram is also used by hackers who often take advantage of security vulnerabilities. Thus The Conversation reports that one study showed that the number of Telegram channels and groups shared on dark web cybercrime and hacking forums increased from 172,035 in 2020 to more than one million in 2021.

It has also become one of the key tools for Russians who are cut off in their homeland from a ‘reality’ that differs from the narrative of the Russian government.

“As with all social networks, you will also find a lot of misinformation and fake news on Telegram. Despite the fact that misinformation still exists on both Facebook and Twitter, these two social networks are much larger and better known and in recent years have been under great pressure from the public and regulators to reduce misinformation”.

“Just remember what it looked like during the pandemic. Telegram is just beginning to gain in popularity, and it is normal that the presence of misinformation on that platform has attracted less attention. That is likely to change in the future. Telegram used to be an application for people who wanted to organize to protest against the government, and now the Russian government itself is using the platform to spread its messages and its propaganda”, Borak concluded.

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