Telegram: Where Russians Turn for Uncensored Ukraine News

Telegram: Where Russians Turn for Uncensored Ukraine News

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, the Russian journalist Farida Rustamova used the Telegram chat app for one purpose: messaging friends.

But as the authorities shut down media outlets that strayed from the official line, including the publications she wrote for, she started posting her articles on Telegram. Her feed there — where she has written about the consolidation of Russia’s elites around President Vladimir V. Putin and the reaction among employees of state-run media to an on-air protest — has already garnered more than 22,000 subscribers.

“This is one of the few channels that are left where you can receive information,” she said in a call over Telegram.

As Russia has silenced independent news media and banned social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, Telegram has become the largest remaining outlet for unrestricted information. Since the war started, it has been the most downloaded app in Russia, with about 4.4 million downloads, according to Sensor Tower, an analytics firm. (There have been 124 million downloads of Telegram in Russia since January 2014, according to Sensor Tower.)

“Telegram is the only place in Russia where people can exchange opinions and information freely, although the Kremlin has worked hard to infiltrate Telegram channels,” said Ilya Shepelin, who used to cover the media for the now-shuttered independent TV channel Rain and has established a blog critical of the war.

After the independent radio station Echo of Moscow was shut down last month, its deputy editor in chief, Tatiana Felgengauer, said, her Telegram audience doubled. And after the Russian authorities blocked access to the popular Russia news site Meduza in early March, its Telegram subscriptions doubled, reaching nearly 1.2 million.

“I get my news there,” said Dmitri Ivanov, who studies computer science at a university in Moscow. He said that he relied on Telegram to view “the same media outlets I trust and the ones whose sites I would read before.”

Opponents of the war use the platform for everything from organizing antiwar protests to sharing media reports from the West. In March, The New York Times launched its own Telegram channel to ensure that readers in the region “can continue to access an accurate account of world events,” the company said in a statement.

But the freedom that has allowed the unfettered exchange of news and opinion has also made Telegram a haven for disinformation, far-right propaganda and hate speech.

Propagandists have their own popular channels — Vladimir Solovyov, the host of a prime time talk show that is a font of anti-Ukraine vitriol every weeknight, has more than 1 million subscribers. Channels in support of Russia’s war, many of them run by unidentified users, proliferate.

State-run media outlets, like Tass and RIA News, also distribute their reports via Telegram.

Telegram has also opened the door to critics of President Vladimir V. Putin from the right, hard-liners exhorting the Kremlin to do more.

Yuri Podolyaka, a military analyst who tends to parrot the government line when he appears on Russia’s popular, state-run Channel One, takes a markedly different approach in the videos he posts to Telegram.

The pro-Russian allies in southeastern Ukraine are not getting sufficient equipment, he says. The Russian government is too slow to establish occupation administrations in the cities it has taken. And refugees from Ukraine are asking in vain for the payments of about $120 dollars promised by Mr. Putin.

“This is not just a war that’s happening on the front lines, this is a war for people’s minds,” he admonished in a video posted Saturday for his more than 1.6 million followers.

Igor I. Strelkov, a Russian army veteran and former defense minister of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, has attracted more than 250,000 followers to his Telegram channel by analyzing problems in how the war is being fought, providing a reality check to government propaganda about how perfectly the war is going.

“I doubt that, after losing the golden first month of the war, our forces will manage to surround and destroy the Ukrainian force in the Donbas,” he said in a video clip posted this week, conceding that some might consider his views treason. “Unfortunately, I see the Ukrainian military command acting an order of magnitude more competently than the Russian one.”

Indeed the word “war,” legally banned in Russia with regard to Ukraine, crops up frequently on Telegram amid the more personal and partisan views by both supporters and opponents.

One of the most vocal government cheerleaders is Ramzan Kadyrov, the pugnacious leader of Chechnya, whose Telegram channel has mushroomed to nearly two million followers from about 300,000 before the war.

He publishes frequent videos of his troops laying siege to Mariupol, often displaying dubious military methods like standing fully upright in an open window while firing a machine gun toward an invisible enemy.

Mr. Kadyrov was roundly mocked as a “TikTok Warrior” online after one picture from a series meant to depict his own field trip to Ukraine showed him praying in the gas station of a brand that only exists in Russia.

Why doesn’t the Kremlin simply ban Telegram, as it has so many other independent news sources? It did, or tried to, in 2018, after the company defied government orders to allow Russian security services access to user data.

But the government lacked the technical means to block access to the app, and it stayed mostly available for Russian users. By 2020, the government lifted its ban, saying that Telegram had agreed to several conditions, including stepped-up efforts to block terrorism and extremist content.

Rather than stifling Telegram, the Kremlin tries to control the narrative there, not just through its own channels but by paying for posts, said Mr. Shepelin, the media analyst. The number of subscribers to official or hard-line channels dwarfs the audience for opponents.

Pavel Chikov, the head of the Agora Human Rights Group, who has represented Telegram in Russia as a lawyer, said the company may have maintained its Russian operations so far because the authorities find it useful to spread the idea that they have certain ties with Telegram and its founder, Pavel V. Durov, “whether it’s true or not.”

Mr. Chikov said he does not believe that Telegram provides any sensitive information about communications to the Russian government or others because if it did, he said, “people all over the world would stop using it.”

But security researchers have raised alarms about how exposed Telegram users may be. Messages, videos, voice notes and photos exchanged through the app do not have end-to-end encryption by default and are stored on the company’s servers. That makes them vulnerable to hacking, government demands or a snooping rogue employee, said Matthew D. Green, an expert on privacy technologies and an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University.

“A service like that is an incredibly juicy target for intelligence agencies, both Russian agencies and others,” said Mr. Green.

Telegram has said the data stored on its servers is encrypted and that protection of user privacy is a top priority. But Mr. Green and other experts say that Telegram’s approach makes communications through the app less secure compared to other messaging services like Signal.

Kevin Rothrock, the managing editor of the English-language version of Meduza, said he was worried about how easy it is for someone with sinister intentions to glean private information through Telegram.

“You can see who’s commenting, who’s in the group chats, people’s phone numbers,” he said. “There’s a rich database.”

Telegram did not respond to requests for comment about its policies and security.

The company is run by Mr. Durov, a Russian émigré who co-founded it with his brother, Nikolai, in 2013, and now operates out of Dubai.

The brothers had created one of Russia’s most popular social network sites, but Pavel sold his share in 2013 and fled the country after refusing to give the government the private data of anti-Russia protesters in Ukraine. (It is not known whether Nikolai also sold his share or where he lives.)

Mr. Durov has said little about the war publicly. In early March, he took to Telegram to remind followers why he left Russia. He also pointed out that his mother had Ukrainian roots and that he had many relatives in Ukraine, making the conflict “personal” for him.

At the beginning of the war, he said that the app would consider suspending all services in Russia and Ukraine to avoid a flood of unverified information. An outcry followed and within hours, Mr. Durov walked back the plan.

Perhaps one of the greatest risks for Russians relying on Telegram for independent journalism is that the company’s actions appear to mostly be in the hands of one man.

“The key question is whether you trust Pavel Durov or not,” said Mr. Chikov, the rights lawyer.

“We’re all hoping Telegram plays nice with us,” Mr. Rothrock said. “That’s a lot of eggs in one basket.”

Valeriya Safronova and Adam Satariano reported from London, and Neil MacFarquhar from Istanbul. Ivan Nechepurenko, Alina Lobzina and Milana Mazaeva contributed reporting.

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