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Telegram has become a window to the war


As Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group, marched on Moscow in late June, all eyes were on one platform: Telegram. Bloggers, citizens and the government broadcast the news via the messaging app to millions of followers, while global media outlets sought any information they could broadcast to the world. Prigozhin himself dramatically chronicled his revolt via voicemail to his 1.3 million followers.

Since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Telegram has gained huge influence in one of the most watched conflicts in the world. “Telegram is fantastic for many, many reasons, and the fact that we’ve gotten to see what’s happening at such a pivotal point in history,” says Jordan Wildon, digital researcher and founder of open source intelligence agency (OSINT ) Prose. Intelligence.

But despite its unique historical role, the platform, founded by Pavel Durov, presents a challenge. Its founder’s emphasis on privacy and hands-off moderation has protected its users from surveillance, but has also allowed Telegram to become a tool of misinformation and manipulation, with users struggling to decipher reality in the onslaught. of information coming from their phones.

“The good news is that everyone can have a way out, but the bad news is that everyone has a way out,” says Wildon.

In Russia, Telegram has sometimes become the only source of information amid stifling government censorship. Across the border, the platform has become a lifeline for Ukrainians trying to keep themselves safe from Russian attacks and track troop movements. And for the rest of the world, Telegram has become a window into a war that has destabilized the world.

“The good news is that everyone can have a way out, but the bad news is that everyone has a way out.”

Among the crucial sources of information over the past year have been pro-war Russian military bloggers, who congregate on Telegram. Russian bloggers first gained prominence in the early 2010s at LiveJournal (known as ZheZhe), a Russian-owned blogging service that hosted writers of all political persuasions. After the platform began to come under attack from the authorities, bloggers moved to Facebook.

One of the most influential Russian war channels is Rybar (which means Fisherman), an account followed by 1.2 million subscribers and cited by global media outlets such as CNN and Bloomberg. Rybar founder Mikhail Zvinchuk says many military bloggers began turning to Telegram after Meta began cracking down on pro-Russian narratives during the country’s involvement in Syria.

Durov, known as the “Mark Zuckerberg from Russia”, he founded the platform in 2013 after owners close to the Kremlin took over his first social network, VKontakte. Based in Dubai, Telegram’s popularity in Russia began to rise during the covid-19 pandemic and then quickly exploded after the invasion of Ukraine. When President Vladimir Putin cracked down on independent media by imposing censorship on war news and blocking social platforms like Facebook and Twitter, the platform became a safe haven for the Russian opposition and its independent media.

But it also allowed pro-war channels to emerge from the fringes, and soon, its influence spilled over into the mainstream media. Zvinchuk remembers watching Russia’s main Channel One on the day of the Prigozhin uprising: all the news came from the platform.

“Yevgeny Prigozhin’s rebellion shows that all information was disseminated exclusively through Telegram,” says Zvinchuk, a former staff member of the press office of the Russian Defense Ministry. “Telegram has become the main information delivery instrument and is trusted more than all traditional media because they are censored.”

Telegram’s rapid adoption was also driven by its design. Channels can have unlimited followers while the content is not controlled by algorithms or interrupted by advertising.

“Telegram’s popularity started to grow because now people are ready to consume large amounts of information in small chunks, like TikToks,” says Zvinchuk, who ran the channel anonymously from its inception in 2018 until the end of 2022. “We acted. as a source of information. in times of crisis and just give people what they need in one convenient package.”

Telegram is a haven for those escaping the censorship of autocrats, but also for extremists, conspiracy theorists, and criminals.

With a monthly budget of around $44,000 raised through individual donations via bank transfers, sponsors, and groups, Zvinchuk claims his news comes from sources on both sides of the war. The channel receives information from mid-level managers within the Russian administration, soldiers and officers, as well as insiders in Ukraine and even the Ukrainian armed forces, he says. “In fact, we have created a kind of private intelligence agency based on Telegram.”

Telegram is run by a team of only about 30 people. But he has allowed his 700 million monthly active users to witness the war in Ukraine through the eyes of those fighting it, replacing the role of war correspondents who have been censored or expelled from Russia. The channel posts updates on the fights, illustrating them with maps, along with videos and images collected from social media users on the site or created by propaganda departments.

The lack of oversight has complicated Telegram’s role as the most important social media platform in the conflict. Telegram is the opposite of major platforms like Facebook: it gives free rein to content creators, displacing them only for illegal pornography, scams or spam, and calls for violence. This has made the platform a haven for those escaping the censorship of autocrats, but also for extremists, conspiracy theorists, and criminals.

On its website, Telegram boasts of its role in pro-democracy movements in places like Iran, Belarus, and Hong Kong. But it has faced attempts to block Brazil’s platform for Do not give out information about neo-Nazis. And despite being treated as a secure communication channel, it doesn’t enable encryption by default. The company has also denied suggestions that it is cooperating with the Russian government on legal requests.

Telegram spokesman Remi Vaughn says that its guiding principle is information neutrality and equal treatment, regardless of the political views users express. He maintains that it is a secure platform specifically designed to escape Russian surveillance. “Telegram has never shared any data with the FSB or any other authority in Russia,” Vaughn says.

But the Russian government—or any other actor with sufficient resources—can also promote narratives and sow mass confusion and misinformation on Telegram. Russian propagandists like Vladimir Solovyov and Russian state media have their own popular channels.

Many of the popular war channels are run by current and former security officers, says Eto Buziashvili, a research associate at the NATO-affiliated Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Laboratory (DFRLab). “We cannot be sure what their agenda is and what game they are playing.”

Rybar’s founder, penalized last month by the European Union for distributing pro-Kremlin propaganda, he was not shy about confirming it. “I can say without any doubt that I have established contacts with certain agencies that handle information coverage by the Defense Ministry,” Zvinchuk says. “We exchange information, solve certain problems, and play certain tricks together to deal damage to the enemy.”

Irina Pankratova, special correspondent for the independent Russian business news outlet The bell, says he’s happy Telegram gave him the chance to talk about the war. But he also believes that people should be responsible for what they post. That’s why she decided investigate rybarbreaking Zvinchuk’s anonymity.

“Maybe the Kremlin understands that there has to be some kind of platform. And at the same time, the Kremlin is trying to control it.”

“This anonymity of information did not exist in such a volume before the development of Telegram,” he says. “It gives rise to complete irresponsibility for information, and that is very dangerous.”

In October last year, the Western media sounded an alarm about the possible preparation for a nuclear attack by Russia. A short video surfaced showing an armored vehicle, and Polish analyst Konrad Muzyka identified it as belonging to a military department responsible for nuclear weapons. The source of the video was Rybar.

The news was soon dismissed by military experts. But while information on Telegram should be handled with caution, some experts believe it may still be the place where the next big war news, even a nuclear attack, could break. “Telegram would probably be the first where that would come out and it would come hard and fast. We’ve seen it in the past,” says Wildon.

For now, Telegram remains a living document of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But the Russian government’s relationship with the platform has been an uneasy one.

after unsuccessful Attempts to block Telegram for refusing to hand over encryption keys to the Federal Security Service (FSB) in 2018, Russian communications regulator Roskomnadzor lifted a ban on the platform in 2020. The agency confirmed that the app would not be blocked in October 2022. Instead, the Russian authorities have tried different tactics. investigations of both domestic and international The media has shown that Russia is working on software that can track anonymous Telegram users.

“The Kremlin is taking it seriously and trying to do something about it,” says Pankratova. “If the Kremlin fails to get some kind of control over Telegram, it can be blocked.”

And military bloggers have to self-censor even on the platform that is supposed to bypass censorship. DFRLab’s Buziashvili says that while military leaders were accused of mishandling the conflict, criticism of Putin among military bloggers was “almost nil.” The Defense Ministry has tried to open criminal cases against bloggers who criticized Russia’s handling of the war in December last year, including Zvinchuk. The plan was abandoned, but Zvinchuk says that he is well aware that there are limits that he must not cross.

For now, Telegram’s role in Russia reflects a longstanding paradox: Autocratic leaders fear the free exchange of information, but still need somewhere to find it. “Maybe the Kremlin understands that there has to be some kind of platform. And at the same time, the Kremlin is trying to control it,” says Pankratova.

And Zvinchuk considers that his work on Telegram benefits Russia. Even if he has to go outside official media channels to report on the war, he believes that the government simply cannot ban all information about it. “You can’t do that, because it’s impossible to feed people shit,” he says. “If they won’t read us, they will go read the enemy.”

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