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Telegram has become a window into war

The messaging app has become a key channel for news about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But the government’s relationship with it is complicated.

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A picture of Telegram’s paper airplane logo surrounded by stencils of the logo.
Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

As Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group, was marching toward Moscow in late June, all eyes were on one platform: Telegram. Bloggers, citizens, and the government relayed the news through the messaging app to millions of followers while global media outlets scoured it for any information they could relay to the world. Prigozhin himself dramatically narrated his revolt through voice messages to his 1.3 million followers.

Since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Telegram has gained an outsize influence on one of the world’s most watched conflicts. “Telegram is fantastic for many, many reasons and for the fact that we’ve managed to see what is happening at such a crucial point in history,” says Jordan Wildon, digital investigator and founder of open-source intelligence (OSINT) agency 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 the reality in the flood of information coming from their phones.

“The good news is everybody gets to have an outlet but the bad news is – everybody gets an outlet,” says Wildon. 

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

“The good news is everybody gets to have an outlet but the bad news is – everybody gets an outlet.”

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

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

Durov, known as the “Mark Zuckerberg of Russia,” founded the platform in 2013 after his first social network, VKontakte, was taken over by owners close to the Kremlin. Based out of Dubai, Telegram’s popularity in Russia started rising during the covid-19 pandemic and then quickly exploded after the invasion of Ukraine. As President Vladimir Putin cracked down on independent media by imposing censorship on war news and blocked social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, the platform became a safe refuge for the Russian opposition and its independent media.

But it also allowed the pro-war channels to emerge from the margins, and soon, its influence was feeding back into mainstream news outlets. Zvinchuk remembers watching Russia’s main Channel One the day of Prigozhin’s uprising — all the news was sourced from the platform.

“The Yevgeny Prigozhin rebellion shows that all the information was spread exclusively through Telegram,” says Zvinchuk, who is a former staff member of the press office of the Russian Ministry of Defence. “Telegram has become the main instrument of information delivery and is trusted more than all the traditional media because they have censorship.”

Telegram’s quick adoption was also driven by its design. Channels can have unlimited followers while content is not driven by algorithms or disrupted by advertisement. 

“Telegram’s popularity began to grow because now people are ready to consume huge amounts of information in small portions, like TikToks,” says Zvinchuk, who ran the channel anonymously from its start in 2018 until late 2022. “We act as a source of information in moments of crisis and simply give people what they need in a convenient package.”

Telegram is a haven for those escaping censorship from autocrats — but also extremists, conspiracy theorists, and criminals

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

Telegram is run by a team of only around 30 people. But it has allowed its 700 million monthly active users to witness the war in Ukraine through the eyes of those fighting it, replacing the role of war correspondents that have been censored or driven out of Russia. The channel publishes updates on the fights, illustrating them with maps, alongside videos and pictures collected from social media users on the site or created by propaganda departments.

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

On its website, Telegram boasts its role in the pro-democracy movements in places like Iran, Belarus, and Hong Kong. But it has faced attempts to block the platform from Brazil for failing to hand over 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 spokesperson Remi Vaughn says its guiding principle is information neutrality and equal treatment regardless of the political views users express. It maintains it is a secure platform specifically conceived to escape Russian surveillance. “Telegram has never shared any data with the FSB or any other authorities in Russia,” says Vaughn.

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

Many of the popular war channels have connections to current and former security officers, says Eto Buziashvili, research associate at the NATO-affiliated Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab). “We cannot be sure what is their agenda and what game they’re playing.”

The founder of Rybar, sanctioned last month by the European Union for distributing pro-Kremlin propaganda, had no qualms confirming that. “I can say, without any hesitation, that I have established contacts with certain bodies handling information coverage on the part of the Ministry of Defence,” says Zvinchuk. “We exchange information, solve certain problems, and play certain tricks together in order to inflict damage on the enemy.”

Irina Pankratova, special correspondent for Russian independent economic news outlet The Bell, says she is happy that Telegram has provided a chance to talk about the war. But she also believes that people should be responsible for what they publish. That’s why she decided to investigate Rybar, breaking Zvinchuk’s anonymity.

“Perhaps 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 volume before the development of Telegram,” she says. “It gives rise to absolute irresponsibility for information, and that is very dangerous.”

In October last year, western media sounded an alarm over possible preparation for a nuclear attack from Russia. A short video emerged 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 although information on Telegram has to be handled with caution, some experts believe it may still be the place where the next big war news could break — even of a nuclear attack. “Telegram probably would be the first where that would come out and it would come thick and fast. We’ve seen that in the past,” says Wildon.

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

After fruitless 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, Russian authorities have tried different tactics. Investigations from both domestic and international news outlets have shown that Russia is working on software that can track anonymous Telegram users.

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

And military bloggers have to self-censor even on the allegedly censorship-evading platform. DFRLab’s Buziashvili says that although military leadership was accused of mismanaging the conflict, criticism of Putin among military bloggers was “close to zero.” The Ministry of Defence has attempted to open criminal cases against bloggers who have been critical of Russia’s handling of the war in December last year, including Zvinchuk. The plan was abandoned, but Zvinchuk says that he is well aware there are boundaries he must not cross. 

For now, Telegram’s role in Russia reflects a long-running paradox: autocratic leaders fear the free exchange of information, but they still need somewhere to find it. “Perhaps 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 sees his work on Telegram as benefiting Russia. Even if he has to go outside official media channels to report on the war, he thinks the government simply can’t 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’ll go read the enemy.”

Correction 4:15PM ET: Many popular war channels have connections to current and former security officers, but are not necessarily run by them, as originally stated. We regret the error.