Telegram Becomes a Digital Battlefield in Russia-Ukraine War

BTo be exact, Nataliia Neshynska didn’t use Telegram before the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24th. Now she can’t go a day without the messaging app. She receives an inexhaustible stream of updates, from Kharkiv in Ukraine to Lorton in Virginia.

“What the Army is doing, how many helicopters they destroyed, some news on supplies, shared jokes, local heroes, fallen and still active,” she rattles off. Nezhynska was a five-year combat medic with the U.S. Army and earned American citizenship. She predicts that the evidence posted on the app will eventually double in value. “I think it’s a very useful tool to document war crimes,” she says, “since it has a lot of live footage of bombings from the phones of residents [and] security cameras too.”

It’s difficult to imagine how Russia’s war in Ukraine would be playing out without Telegram. The messaging app, which last year reached a billion downloads, has turned into the conflict’s digital battle space. It’s an instrumental tool for both governments and a hub of information for citizens on both sides. The app is used by officials from the Ukrainian government, including President Volodymyr Zelensky, to gather global support, disseminate air raid warnings, and map out local bomb shelters. Both the Russian government as well as Russian opposition channels rely on it for everything, even if they are cut off from social media. Senior military officers and amateur sleuths alike scan Ukrainian channels 24 hours a day for the most recent military developments or strikes.

Learn More: Volodymyr Zilensky: How he defended Ukraine and united the world

Wars have unfolded on social media before, but rarely have they been so meticulously documented as in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Telegram is now the most popular social media platform. It offers a clear view on the conflict and allows for everyone to use it. It has helped connect more than 3 million Ukrainian refugees to aid and safe routes. Many millions of Ukrainians living abroad use the app to get news and updates, constantly scanning through endless photos and videos looking for faces or landmarks. Russian soldiers’ families use it too.

“It’s the last social media bridge from the Western world into the Russian world…where you can kind of see what’s going and how the battle is playing out,” says Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who focuses on foreign disinformation. “Whoever can sustain their information campaigns on Telegram has the best chance of shaping world views around what’s going on inside Ukraine.”

Telegram’s power and danger is due to its inability to be monitored. The messaging app was founded in 2013 by exiled Russian brothers Nikolai Durov and Pavel Durov. It quickly became a popular haven for terrorists such as the Islamic State. As social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube cracked down on content from jihadist and extremist groups, the then-obscure messaging service offered them speed, security, and privacy—with little to no moderation. Telegram has been used by fringe groups like Covid-19 and QAnon conspiracy theorists and white nationalists, but also Black Lives Matter organizers, pro-democracy groups from South Korea to Cuba and Iran, and Russia’s own opposition groups. Telegram has not responded to our request for comment.

No algorithm decides which information to display or exclude users. Its architecture is flexible enough to allow for infinite groups. You can easily turn off comments, which turns channels into an information megaphone for millions. One click and you can convert messages between Russian and English.

Telegram is now the centre of the propaganda war. Stories of Ukrainian resistance, heroism and disinformation can go viral alongside stories about Ukrainian heroes. Now, amid increasingly brutal attacks on Ukrainian civilians and a desperate crackdown on “false information” in Russia, both sides are racing to dominate the Telegram war.

“Telegram has become this really key battleground in the information war,” says Dr. Ian Garner, a historian and translator of Russian war propaganda. “And it’s interesting that this information war has been outsourced to a private company.”

Zelenksy’s team is no stranger Telegram. In 2019, his advisors were among the first to adopt Telegram. The app allowed them to find and coordinate volunteers. Officials were able to use their existing infrastructure to organize news updates and fundraise and to recruit foreign fighters and cyber-volunteers when they found themselves suddenly leading an effort to digitally war.

“I could even say it’s our home turf,” Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation, told TIME in a March 12 interview. “When the war erupted, we went back to Telegram and remembered everything that we knew, so we are operating quite successfully.”

Continue reading: The Man on Ukraine’s Digital Frontline

To provide updates on the conflict, the Ukrainian government used its COVID-19 Telegram channel. This channel was previously used for pandemic news and had been in use for two years. Renamed “UkraineNow,” the effort now has more than three million followers across its Ukrainian, Russian and English-language channels. Fedorov’s team has also used the app to recruit an “IT Army” of 300,000 cybersecurity volunteers, it told TIME.

Zelensky shares informal videos and personal clips, many of which are filmed with a smartphone to his channel. In three weeks, his channel—which had 65,000 followers on Feb. 23—has grown explosively. More than 1.5million people subscribe to his news updates.

Officials in Ukraine have found many new uses for the app. Many cities have their own channels, along with their officials. Air-raid alerts, bomb shelter maps, safety advice and tips on spotting Russian saboteurs are shared by authorities.

Continue reading: Ukrainian Mothers Help Their Children Rescued

It’s not only a way for Ukrainian officials to get information out, but also for civilians to provide information back to them. Telegram bots allows people to send details regarding the movements and armour of Russian troops or vehicles. These information are sent back to the Ukrainian authorities and the regional ones. On March 8, Ukraine’s Security Service said one such tip allowed them to successfully attack Russian vehicles outside Kyiv. “Your messages about the movement of the enemy through the official chatbot…bring new trophies every day,” the agency tweeted.

The Ukrainians have also used Telegram to try to outpace the Russian propaganda machine by warning people about false narratives—that Ukrainian forces were surrendering, or that Zelensky had fled Kyiv—before they take root. Ukraine’s Center for Countering Disinformation, which is part of its national security and defense council, has been calling on ordinary citizens to “join the information front!”

“While our defenders repel the onslaught of the occupiers, Russian information terrorists broadcast a picture of an alternative reality,” it posted on Telegram on Feb. 27. “Today Ukrainians must unite. Contact your relatives, acquaintances and friends in Russia and send them a link to the Telegram channel.”

THe app wasRussians are no less crucial. Telegram is a popular service in Russia. However, millions of people have been forced to use it due to lack of information. Logically, an U.K.-based tech company that fights misinformation and has analysed 187 Russian-language news channels, provided TIME with a report showing that subscribers to the service have grown by 48%, jumping 8 million since Feb. 24.

It’s difficult to tell how many Russians are seeking out independent news about the war on Telegram, and how many are following pro-Russian propaganda after migrating to the app following the ban of Facebook and Twitter. It is widely used by Russian opposition organizations and it was critical of the organizing of the Belarus protests in 2020 against Putin ally Alexander Lukashenko. Yet, the Russian government seems unlikely to move to ban it again. It has failed in the past.

“The Russian government needs Telegram,” says Garner. “Their news websites keep getting hacked, they keep getting taken down, and they keep having outages…so they’ve been telling people to use and follow them on Telegram to get the news.”

Continue reading: Ukrainian photographer documents the invasion of his country.

Pro-Russian accounts used a similar strategy to flood Telegram with bots and disinformation during the conflict in Ukraine. Lately, they have employed fake personas posing as “war correspondents” through an arsenal of Kremlin-friendly channels masquerading as objective reporting. A Russian channel called “The War on Fakes,” which pretends to be a fact-checking service about the conflict in Ukraine, has been spreading disinformation and propaganda to its growing audience of more than 630,000 followers. When Telegram banned official Russian state media accounts for users in the European Union to comply with new restrictions, the Russians simply used “mirror” channels that are more difficult to track, says Jordan Wildon, a senior analyst for Logically.

At the same time, Telegram is also the conduit through which authentic details that contradict the Kremlin’s closely controlled narrative trickle back into Russia. “These narratives that are not coming from any state media source are seeping through even to the more traditional media viewers,” says Garner. “Which means they must be getting in through Telegram.”

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