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Telegram: The digital battlefront between Russia and Ukraine

Darren Loucaides is a writer who covers the politics of technology.

Western pundits may flock to Twitter and Facebook for the latest news; but the one infosphere that really matters in Russia’s war against Ukraine is Telegram. 

The messaging and social media platform has played a central role in the conflict since the outset, both as a vehicle for state propaganda and disinformation, as well as an invaluable news source for ordinary Ukrainians and Russians. That means there’s a lot hinging on a company and app that is poorly understood in the West. And, as the company’s founder Pavel Durov demonstrated when he considered blocking Telegram in both countries last week, a lot also rides on one man’s decisions. 

On February 28, the Russian-born entrepreneur revealed he was thinking about restricting his platform in Ukraine and Russia. Posting on his public Russian-language channel, which has 650,000 subscribers, he wrote of his concern that Telegram was “increasingly becoming a source of unverified information.” He urged users from Russia and Ukraine to be suspicious of any information they came across on the platform and noted he did not want Telegram to be used to aggravate conflict or “incite ethnic hatred.” 

The pivotal statement came at the end: “In the event of an escalation of the situation, we will consider the possibility of partially or completely restricting the operation of Telegram channels in the countries involved for the duration of the conflict.” 

Durov’s words quickly attracted a deluge of negative comments and “dislikes” on his channel — a space where likes from adoring fans normally far outweigh any negativity — with some channels in Ukraine criticizing the mooted “censorship.” Little more than a half hour later, Durov backtracked. But the damage was already done. The original post had been seen 6 million times in the span of a day, amassing more than 50,000 dislikes.

As the invasion has progressed, Twitter, Facebook and traditional news sites have tried to clamp down on Russian state media and misinformation. But on Telegram, which boasts a global user base of at least 500 million, and remains what almost all people in Ukraine and Russia are looking at, misinformation continues to spread freely — with Durov admitting the company doesn’t have the capacity to stop it.  

Many pro-Kremlin channels, masquerading as open-source intelligence, have added “Z” to their names — the same mark seen on some Russian military vehicles — and misinformation from Kremlin-linked channels are being shared onto other platforms and disseminated around the world. And while Telegram has now joined other platforms in banning Russia Today’s channels in Europe, in compliance with European Union sanctions, it has not done so in Russia or Ukraine, the two territories that matter in this war.

Meanwhile, as Russia has moved to block social media platforms and Western media outlets, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko has taken action to “protect” the Russian net, with one particularly eye-opening instruction: On March 6, the Russian government’s official Telegram channel posted that “Government agencies are recommended to create accounts in Telegram and VKontakte,” the Russian social network helmed by Durov from 2006 to 2014.

Durov himself is an enigmatic 37-year-old exile who hasn’t given an interview in years. But despite his self-portrayal as a semi-dissident who fled his home country under pressure from the authorities, his relationship with the Kremlin remains rather ambiguous. In 2012, when Durov was still CEO of VKontakte, the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta published an alleged exchange between him and Vladislav Surkov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s deputy chief of staff at the time, which seemed to imply the company was passing on user information requested by the authorities. Durov denied the claims, but later admitted he met Surkov several times.

As for Telegram, the company’s small team of exceptional engineers overcame an attempt by Russia’s telecommunications regulator Roskomnadzor to block the app in 2018. But the two sides appear to have come to an understanding after the ban was lifted in 2020. During Russia’s 2021 parliamentary elections, Telegram banned content and channels offering campaign services, including tools pushed by the country’s opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Durov later blamed the move on Google and Apple’s alleged compliance with the Kremlin, companies that Telegram depends on for hosting in their app stores.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the conflict, Ukrainians continue to depend on Telegram as their main source of information. In a subsequent post on his English-language Telegram channel, Durov assured Ukrainian users that their data was safe, while also erroneously implying that he was previously fired from VKontakte for refusing to hand over data of Ukrainian users during protests in 2014. But Ukrainians’ faith in Telegram — used by more than 70 percent of people in the country — may prove risky. Telegram has been aggressively marketed as an encrypted and privacy-focused app since its founding in 2013, with outlets constantly misdescribing it as an “encrypted messaging app.” But apart from the fact that it is as much a social network as a messaging app, most chats are stored via cloud-based servers and experts have doubts about how secure it really is.

Telegram “is by default a cloud database w/ a plaintext copy of every msg everyone has ever sent/recvd,” Signal founder Moxie Marlinspike warned in a recent tweet. And though a Telegram spokesman has since poured scorn on these claims, former Telegram employee Anton Rozenberg, who is based in Russia, echoed Marlinspike’s worries. “We can’t rule out the possibility that Ukrainians (as well as other users) use Telegram because of its convenience, mistakenly believing that it’s reliable and secure, when their data can be accessed by Telegram employees and passed on to a third party,” he told me. Other former employees have also voiced concerns about the possibility that Telegram could, potentially, read users’ messages.  

Greater scrutiny on both Durov and his platform is urgently needed as Russia’s war on Ukraine continues to escalate. Attempts by Western governments and tech companies to purge the internet of propaganda will only be symbolic as long as Telegram remains the true digital battlefront between Russia and Ukraine.

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