Ukrainians turned to Telegram app

Source: By Rounak Bagchi: The Indian Express

It was in Lviv when a message popped up: “Air alarm: Lviv, Rivne!!!” No, this wasn’t a government-issued notification to warn Ukrainians of a missile strike. This was a post on the Ukraine NOW telegram channel that has around a million people who have been dependent on it since the war started.

And this is not the only channel alerting people about the war. As Russian troops and tanks rolled into Ukraine over a month ago, various such channels on the messaging application have helped keep people safe, debunk potential Russian disinformation, and counter emerging threats.

The Ukrainian government, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, rely on the app for everything — from rallying global support to disseminating air raid warnings and maps of local bomb shelters. So do both the Russian government and Russian opposition channels, who now find themselves cut off from most mainstream social media. Amateur sleuths and senior military officials alike comb Ukrainian channels 24/7 for fresh details about the latest strikes or military developments.

With it being difficult to imagine how Russia’s war in Ukraine would have been without Telegram as it has grown to become an instrument for both governments and a hub of information for citizens on both sides, we take a look at how the app has turned into the war’s digital battle space.

Ukraine’s tryst with Telegram

Telegram has been a long ally of the Ukrainians. In 2019, Zelenskyy’s advisers were early adopters during his 2019 presidential campaign when they used the app to recruit and organise volunteers, often posting exclusive news.

When Covid-19 hit the world in 2020, thousands of Ukrainians had turned to the @COVID19_Ukraine Telegram channel to get updates regarding the pandemic every day. It shared daily case figures, the number of people who had died, and the government’s latest health advice.

The original Covid-19 channel was set up by a Ukrainian technology agency, the Institute of Cognitive Modelling. The government quickly adopted it as the official Telegram pandemic service in March 2020.

However, as Russian forces came in, the nature of the channel quickly changed to one that provided real-time war updates. While Ukrainian officials have effectively used Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, among others, to share updates, boost morale, and draw international attention to the invasion, the use of Telegram stands out. The app’s hybrid structure makes it a powerful tool for mass communications. Public or private channels, such as UkraineNOW, can have an unlimited number of members, while public and private groups allow up to 200,000 members. WhatsApp’s maximum group size is 256 members, while Signal groups top out at 1,000 people.

UkraineNOW is, however, not the only one. Telegram channels across Ukraine have grown in recent days, many of them through extensively posting about the war. Some of those growing the fastest, though, belong to official government channels. Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the mayor of Kyiv, former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, and digital minister Mykhailo Fedorov all have large Telegram channels with hundreds of thousands of members. Zelenskyy’s channel had 65,000 subscribers on 23 February 2022. Now it has more than 1.4 million, according to one Telegram analytics website. Government departments and the parliament, known as the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, have all shared hundreds of messages about the war.

As the war raged, Ukrainian officials found Telegram to have a range of practical uses — most cities and towns, as well as their local officials, have their own channels, and authorities share air-raid warnings, maps of bomb shelters, safety advice, and tips for spotting alleged Russian saboteurs. It’s not only a way for Ukrainian officials to get information out, but also for civilians to provide information back to them. People can report details about the movements of Russian troops and armoured vehicles through Telegram bots, which channel the information back to Ukrainian national and regional authorities. On 8 March, 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.

In an interview with TIME, Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov had said: “When the war erupted, we went back to Telegram and remembered everything that we knew, so we are operating quite successfully.” Fedorov has also used his Telegram channel to share letters addressed to the CEOs of Meta, Google, YouTube, Netflix, and Apple. He asked the companies to restrict their services in Russia and crack down on the spread of misinformation and disinformation and many of them, including Apple, have complied to some extent.

With nearly 500,000 members before Russia’s invasion, UkraineNOW was already one of the country’s biggest Telegram channels. Now a million people depend on it for updates about the war. Its posts, which are shared by other channels, get around 8 million views a day. On 26 February 2022, UkraineNOW posted 139 times and forwarded another 54 messages from other Telegram accounts as compared to posting just three to five times before the invasion. Its evolution and continued growth provide a glimpse of how the social media app has helped keep citizens up to date on Russia’s invasion with verified information during a time when platforms have struggled to handle a flood of misinformation and disinformation.

Has Russia, too, used the social media app for its benefit?

Telegram has always been very popular in Russia and the invasion and the subsequent media crackdown has driven millions of news-starved users to the service. A recent study by logically, a UK-based technology company that counters misinformation, showed that the app had seen a 48 per cent rise in subscribers since 24 February 2022.

The app is also used by many Russian opposition groups, and was critical to the organisation of the Belarus protests against Putin ally Alexander Lukashenko in 2020. Yet, it seems unlikely that the Russian government will ban it.

During the war in Ukraine, pro-Russian accounts have gone around doing what they do best: flooding the social media platform with bots that help dish out misinformation. Lately, there are a lot of fake personas that have cropped up, posing as “war correspondents” to spread what the Kremlin wants to portray. One of the most popular ones is a Russian channel called “The War on Fakes” which has about 63,000 followers. When Telegram banned official Russian state media accounts for users in the European Union to comply with new restrictions, the Russians simply used these “mirror” channels that are more difficult to track.

Why Telegram, and are there any drawbacks to using the app?

No oversight. That is how the messaging app gained popularity and that, still, continues to be the reason why it remains so widely in use in this day and age where privacy and security hold so much importance.

Founded in 2013 by now-exiled Russian brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov, the messaging app soon became notorious as a haven for extremists like 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.

There is no algorithm that keeps a check or decides what to show users or what to restrict, and its architecture allows limitless groups. Comments are easily turned off, turning channels into a megaphone blasting information to a captive audience of millions of followers. With just one click, a built-in button can translate messages from Russian to English or other languages, turning it into a tool of mass communication. Moreover, unlike WhatsApp and Signal, Telegram doesn’t use end-to-end encryption by default. It is only available in specific “secret chats”.

It is this lack of oversight that even prompted Pavel Durov, who rarely intervenes on the app’s controversies, to speak out. “Telegram channels are increasingly becoming a source of unverified information related to Ukrainian events,” Durov posted on Telegram on 27 February 2022. “We do not have the physical ability to check all channel publications for accuracy.” Durov considered “partially or completely restricting” Telegram in both Russia and Ukraine, but quickly backtracked after being told it was a key way people are communicating.