Why Telegram became the go-to app for Ukrainians — even though it’s full of Russian disinformation

For weeks, Russia’s military attack on Ukraine has been supplemented by a full-fledged one information war. The Kremlin has propagated Russian state media and attempted to control the narrative also online.

We’ve seen a barrage of “scam content” circulating – including fake news reports and Deepfake Videos – while Ukrainians and the rest of the world struggled to find ways to tell the true story of the invasion.

The instant messaging app Telegram has emerged as one of the most important channels for this. But what is Telegram about, with millions flocking to it amid the chaos?



READ ALSO: Fake Viral Footage Spreads Alongside Real Horror In Ukraine. Here are 5 ways to spot it


What is Telegram?

Telegram is one of the most popular social apps in Ukraine and Russia, and was before the invasion began. It is a free cloud-based app that allows users to send and receive messages, calls, photos, videos, audio and other files.

The platform was first created in 2013 by Russian-born tech entrepreneur Pavel Durov – a character associated with the increasingly authoritarian Russian state on numerous occasions.

Now, Telegram is bringing some clarity to a foggy environment of (mostly Russian) disinformation. It was even a contact point for the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

How does it work?

Telegram has several key features that make it an attractive option for war-related communications.

It facilitates public and private groups of up to 200,000 users (where individuals can message and interact) and channels (allowing one-way broadcast to channel subscribers).

Through these groups and channels, businesses can reach hundreds of thousands of people with messages and audio/video live streaming – all encrypted and stored in Telegram’s “cloud”.

Although both public and private communications are encrypted on Telegram, the default encryption setting is not end-to-end, but on a client/server basis.

Data is stored (albeit in encrypted form) in the cloud and distributed across multiple data centers around the world. These centers are controlled by legal entities in different jurisdictions and are governed by the laws of those jurisdictions. These dates could be deciphered, although this would be difficult.

But Telegram offers another layer of security through its “Secret chat” feature. When enabled, communication between two users will be end-to-end encrypted.

This data is not stored anywhere except on the sender’s and receiver’s devices. Not even Telegram can access it. Users can also set a “self-destruct” timer for secret chats. Once the timer runs out, the communication disappears forever.

Telegram claims to be even safer than similar apps like WhatsApp and Line.

One feature that sets it apart from WhatsApp is anonymous forwarding. When enabled, any message forwarded by a user can no longer be traced back to them. The message includes its display name in plain unassociated text, but this display name can easily be changed or deleted.

Although users need a phone number to create a Telegram account, the number does not have to remain associated with the account (while a phone number always remains associated with a WhatsApp account).

Telegram meets politics (again)

Telegram has historically been used as a protest tool in times of conflict and oppression.

In 2020 people of Belarus opposite Russian-backed authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko used the platform to organize a mass protest involving around 100,000 people.

It is likely that similar actions took place in connection with the war against Ukraine. President Zelenskyy openly used Telegram to do so men pushing take up arms and resist the invasion.

Many Russians have also turned to the app for independent information after the Kremlin cracked down on free media. Russian journalist Ilya Varlamov telegram used to live stream the invasion and has gained 1.3 million subscribers since the war began.

Accordingly Time, the number of Russian subscribers to Telegram has increased by 48% since February 24, when the Russian invasion began. Presumably the majority of these people are looking for independent news. Western outlets including The guard, The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post have also joined.

Telegram is also valuable to the Ukrainian military as it can help bypass Russian surveillance and conduct intelligence operations. Russia’s intrusion into Ukraine’s telecommunications networks was ubiquitous during the invasion.

The double-edged sword

As with any powerful technology, the privacy offered by Telegram is a problem in the wrong hands.

The Russian government operates and has operated Telegram channels for state-affiliated media, including Sputnik and RT news encouraged users to contact the app for Kremlin-friendly content.

Meanwhile, Russian bot accounts are spreading disinformation, often posing as fake “war correspondents” supporting the Kremlin’s narrative.

In the past, Telegram was profiled for everyone wrong reasons. End-to-end encryption has enabled illegal activity on the app (including extremist groups like Islamic State).

A learn found that the number of Telegram groups or channels shared on Darkweb cybercrime and hacking forums increased from 172,035 in 2020 to more than 1 million in 2021.

Telegram offers criminals and hackers the same opportunities as the dark web, VPNs, and proxy servers: all of these tools make it difficult to track a cybercriminal’s location, and therefore hinder efforts to gather information.



Read more: The hacking group Anonymous has waged a cyber war against Russia. How effective could they actually be?


For example, the private Telegram channel “combolist” – on which hackers sold and circulated large quantities stolen data – had more than 47,000 users before it was shut down.

And last year a US non-profit group sued Apple and asked it to remove Telegram from its app store (like Parler was removed) for failing to prevent the spread of violent content following the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol. Telegram remains available in both Apple and Google app stores.

The pressure is growing

Telegram has been shown to have turned down calls for content moderation (perhaps due to Durov’s libertarian view of how such technologies should be regulated).

Additionally, the way the platform is built means that it has limited moderation capabilities. In many cases, Telegram does not detect illegal activity until it is notified.

And with end-to-end encryption, it’s difficult to know how much malicious content is circulating. Telegram can only intervene in a limited number of cases and with limited capacity.

Still, there seems to be increasing threats and legal concerns have begun to shake Durov’s resolve.

A Telegram ban was issued by Brazil’s Supreme Court on Friday to stop the spread of fake news ahead of Brazil’s October elections.

The ban was lifted two days later, after Durov measures taken to comply with the court’s requirements. He deleted Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s posts, removed a supporter account and promised to monitor others.

Similarly, in February, Germany threatened to shut down Telegram to prevent “hate and incitement” by far-right groups and COVID conspirators. It is reported In response, more than 60 channels were removed.

It seems that Telegram is between a rock and a hard place. There is a design limitation on how much content can be filtered. But despite the social and enforcement challenges, it continues to be a lifeline for those who oppose the Russian invasion.

About Katie Curtis

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