In recent weeks, the instant messaging app Telegram has become a key source of information and communications both in Ukraine, where the population can rely less and less on radio and television due to the attacks on infrastructure, and in Russia, where news about the war that pass through the national media are filtered by censorship and government propaganda. The platform, already widespread in Eastern Europe before the war, however, continues to have major problems with disinformation, and is not the safest messaging app that those organizing resistance to an invasion can use, nor those who are opposes an authoritarian government.
Telegram was founded by the Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov and his brother Nikolai in 2013, and although it is mainly considered a messaging application that competes with WhatsApp or Signal, it offers several features reminiscent of a real social network. Telegram is characterized in particular by its group chats, which can accommodate up to 200 thousand members, and the channels, which are flows of public or private posts and links, often thematic, where a single person or organization can send images. , photos and videos to subscribers. The channels can be followed by an unlimited number of people.
Thanks to these functions, and to the fact that the company tends to moderate the contents within the platform as little as possible, systematically refusing to collaborate with governments that request information on its users, Telegram over the years has become the reference point for activists, protest movements and more or less clandestine organizations of all kinds, from demonstrators for democracy in Hong Kong to white supremacists, from anti-vaccinists to the opposition in Iran and Belarus.
The platform is used by over 550 million people around the world, and even before the war it was the most popular messaging app in Ukraine, adopted by around 70% of the population. With the outbreak of the war, Telegram is playing a central role both as a news source for Russian and Ukrainian users who have hardly access to other media, as a preferred means of communication for journalists and state authorities, and as a vehicle for propaganda and disinformation. .
Chechen leader Razman Kadyrov, one of Vladimir Putin's most prominent allies, is using Telegram to document his paramilitary troops' actions in Ukraine.
One thing is missing though: Evidence of actual bravery on the battlefield.
Read the story: https://t.co/31cl24xC2D pic.twitter.com/jt4cFUISRc
– POLITICOEurope (@POLITICOEurope) March 17, 2022
Intermittent telecommunications blackouts and power outages in Ukraine make the application particularly valuable as a source of information. “People copy and paste entire articles on Telegram so they don't have to use bandwidth to access a second link,” says Joan Donovan, director of research at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy.
The independent digital English-language newspaper Kyiv Independent introduced its Telegram channel on February 24, within hours of the invasion, and has already surpassed 50,000 subscribers since then. One of the most followed channels in the country, @ COVID19_Ukraine, which until February shared reliable data and information on the pandemic in the country and the indications of the government, with the consent of the subscribers changed its name to @UkraineNOW. Today, it provides verified war information around the clock, has over one million subscribers, and gets around 8 million views a day. On February 27, the organizers of the channel created versions in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish and Polish.
Several members of the Ukrainian government are also wisely using the app, starting with President Volodymyr Zelensky, who had already conducted part of his 2019 election campaign on Telegram and is followed by over 1.5 million people on the app. In his official channel, Zelensky publishes daily videos and updates on the war and practical advice to be safe, as well as appeals in which he asks the population to resist: on February 26, for example, he used it to show that he was still in the capital, in response to rumors that he had left the country ordering the army to surrender.
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Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko and Digital Transition Minister Mykhailo Fedorov also have very popular channels. Fedorov, who in recent weeks has been leading a campaign aimed at bringing big tech companies to Ukraine's side to digitally isolate Russia, has also used Telegram to coordinate the hackers of the more than 200,000 volunteers who have offered to help the country with targeted cyber attacks.
In addition to communications on the progress of the conflict, on the application you can find directions to reach the air-raid shelters or leave the country safely, instructions for building Molotov cocktails, looking for missing relatives and friends. But also a lot of disinformation and Russian propaganda.
Telegram, like other big tech companies, has banned Kremlin-controlled state media channels Russia Today in many countries in compliance with European sanctions, but RT remains accessible on the platform in both Russia and Ukraine. On March 6, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko publicly advised government agencies to open channels on Telegram.
On February 28, Telegram founder Pavel Durov posted a post on his public channel in Russian expressing his concerns that the app was becoming “more and more a source of unverified information.” Durov stressed that he did not want the platform to be used to aggravate the conflict or “incite ethnic hatred”, and hinted at the possibility of interrupting the service in Russia and Ukraine until the end of the conflict. After half an hour he changed his mind.
– Read also: How Russia makes disinformation about war
Durov's relationship with the Russian government is troubled. In 2013, the programmer had been banned from the social network he had created, VKontakte (sometimes referred to as “the Russian Facebook”) after refusing to hand over the personal data of users who had demonstrated in the known Ukrainian protests to the Russian government. like Euromaidan. The previous year, VKontakte had also been central in organizing protests against the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin: even on that occasion, Durov did not want to censor the posts of the demonstrators.
Durov had therefore abandoned Russia and devoted himself entirely to Telegram, which in 2018 had been banned temporarily in Russia because the company had refused to provide the Federal Security Service with the keys to decrypt messages exchanged by users within the 'app. During the 2021 Russian parliamentary elections, however, Telegram had agreed to remove a tool perfected by the electoral committee of opponent Alexei Navalny, a bot that advised voters the most likely candidates to beat Putin's. Durov had called the choice “sad”, attributing it however to requests from Apple and Google to comply with Russian laws on electoral silence, explaining that Telegram is too dependent on the two platforms to do otherwise.
Even today, those who oppose the war and the government in Russia tend to turn to Twitter or Telegram, where it is possible to exchange petitions, support protesters arrested by the police, keep in touch with friends and relatives who have left the country and access sources of information that do not repeat the Kremlin's propaganda. Several newspapers in recent weeks have in fact been forced to close because they did not follow the instructions of the government, which prevents us from defining what is happening as “war” or “invasion”, forcing those who want to continue talking about it to call it a “special military operation”.
On Telegram, the Russian channel OVD-Info has specialized in keeping track of how many people were arrested during the anti-war protests. Protesters face fines ranging from 2,000 to 300,000 rubles (between 17 and 2,500 euros) and up to thirty days of detention. OVD-Info receives information directly from those on the spot, who can call or send messages on Telegram to communicate the number of detainees in police vehicles or in the barracks, as well as report cases of violence by the police.
Some Western media also use Telegram to reach Russian users. The New York Times has recently inaugurated a channel dedicated only to news about the war. The Guardian, on the other hand, urges anyone who wants to share news or experiences from the front to contact the newspaper on the platform.
Although the application has been described for years as the perfect space for activists, journalists, politicians and other users who demand a particular level of confidentiality and protection, however, cybersecurity experts have been pointing out for years that Telegram is not the best option for which trust in these cases.
The idea that Telegram is a particularly secure service is widespread, but inaccurate. “Creating a false sense of security around communications that are actually not fully protected can encourage people to expose highly sensitive information that they would otherwise have routed through other channels,” warns Carolyn Tackett of the nonprofit Access Now, which deals with rights. digital civilians.
Telegram does not apply end-to-end encryption – that is, the highest standard currently in existence for the protection of communications – to all conversations that take place within it. To use them, you need to start a secret chat with every single person you text with. Large groups and channels are not protected by end-to-end encryption, which means that the messages within them are decrypted and saved on the company's cloud servers and exposed to any hacker attacks or access requests from governments. .
The company says it has a facility spread across several states so that decrypting data stored in its cloud requires a legal claim in many different jurisdictions. Telegram's main rivals, WhatsApp and Signal, have instead added end-to-end encryption for group text messages, while giving up hosting huge groups like Telegram does.
– Read also: Why phones and the Internet still work in Ukraine
To better protect their users in Ukraine and Russia, several technology companies have strengthened the security of their messaging components in recent weeks: Meta has released a feature that allows you to exchange messages encrypted by end-to-end encryption on Instagram in Ukraine and Russia, and Twitter has decided to make it easier to access their services using Tor, a tool that makes it much more difficult to track a user's Internet activity.
There is a service that, above all, is recommended as a truly safe alternative to Telegram: Signal, the centralized instant messaging application created by the anarchist Moxie Marlinspike in 2014. In Ukraine, Signal is certainly not as widespread as Telegram, but the Cybersecurity company Cloudflare noted that, four days after the start of the war, traffic to Signal from Ukraine exceeded traffic to Telegram for the first time.
As the non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation points out, “for many Ukrainians, the specifics of encrypted communications are probably not the top priority right now”: more important is being able to access vital information and keep in touch with loved ones . For activists, soldiers, government officials and journalists who exchange sensitive information, however, the matter is different. For them, “it may be wiser to switch to a different platform for certain types of high-risk communications.”