July 10, 2022

Keeping the Pulse on the War with Telegram


Keeping the Pulse on the War with Telegram
The Telegram logo | Image by Dima Solomin on Unsplash

Telegram, one of the most popular social media apps for Russian speakers, is used widely in Russia and the former Soviet Union to chat, video call, and circulate news. Users subscribe to various channels where videos or images often accompany commentary, and there is no limit on group chats, which are used to organize events, protests, and – since the start of the war in Ukraine – help refugees find services.

According to the New York Times, Telegram has been the most downloaded app in Russia since the war began. Many have turned to the service for uncensored news.

You can find live footage of airstrikes and explosions taken from cell phones, security systems, and municipal cameras; war photography abounds. The Ukrainian government has used the service to circulate information and uplift its people; Ukrainian civilians have spoken back, providing updates on and the whereabouts of Russian forces. It is the last social media platform the West can use to get an accurate idea of what is happening in parts of Ukraine.

Though it is a source of independent Russian-language media like Meduza and a way for subscribers to seek truth about the war, Telegram is also home to state-sponsored propaganda like RIA Novosti. Channels are humorous, pro-Russian, pro-Ukrainian, and sometimes neutral; there is agitprop, satire, terrorist commentary, and military analysis.

Subscribers must sift through fakes, partials truths, and bias alongside brutal imagery from the war. The application lacks an algorithm, which means users are not advertised to or suggested accounts; the responsibility for seeking information sources thus lies with the subscriber.

Owners Nikolai and Pavel Durov, who now run Telegram from Dubai, founded the application in 2013 as a means of communication that would evade Kremlin control. Pavel previously co-founded the social media platform VKontakte, which is similar to Facebook, only to have Kremlin allies wrest control of the site (according to Business Insider, Durov claims he was fired) following his refusal to give the data of anti-Kremlin protestors to the government. Durov left VKontakte in late 2013 and fled Russia shortly thereafter.

Telegram has less oversight than apps with strict privacy and data collection laws, like Facebook or Twitter. This has created a space for extremists to communicate and collaborate, which remains the case today.

After the Russian government ordered Telegram to turn over user data to security services and was refused, the state attempted to both ban and block the service. The block failed because the government lacked the technology; the ban was lifted in 2020 after the Russian government supposedly came to an agreement with Telegram that would require them to restrict extremist and terrorist content.

There are other security concerns about the application. On the one hand, users have access to the names and telephone numbers of other members in group chats. At the same time, data that flows from the application is not end-to-end encrypted by default (users need to click that setting). Telegram stores the data on their own servers, leaving it vulnerable to hacking, though they have assured users that the data on their servers is encrypted.

Though there is risk, the app remains a rich resource for those whose more traditional means of accessing information are limited.

Here are seven channels worth looking at on the platform.

Ukraine Now

https://t.me/UkraineNow

There is also an account in English: https://t.me/UkraineNowenglish

UkraineNow, with a following of over 3 million across English, Ukrainian, and Russian-language channels, is an evolution of the Ukrainian state’s former official COVID-19 Telegram channel. While it once shared news of the pandemic, it is now providing war updates around the clock, also serving as a source of verified information for Ukrainians. Subscribers also receive practical information related to the war, such as how to distinguish Ukrainian military equipment from Russian, or how to safely pass military checkpoints.

Унiан – новости Украины

https://t.me/uniannet

This channel provides aggregated news related to the war in Ukraine. They post announcements from Zelenskiy, videos of military strikes, and articles on geopolitics; the curators also get cheeky, posting content like a plush duck in a suit with a wig like Boris Johnson and the heading, “This beauty was created by Vinnytsian (Ukrainian) masters. Do you recognize our hero?”

While some information on this channel might not be verified, and at times it contains speculation, it serves well to get general news of the war.

They also have a YouTube channel in Russian and Ukrainian: https://www.youtube.com/c/unian  

Zelenskiy / Official

https://t.me/V_Zelenskiy_official

This is the official channel of Ukraine’s President Volodimir Zelenskiy. Besides posting the inspirational informal videos that went viral at the beginning of the war, the channel follows geopolitics and how the world is reacting to the war in Ukraine. Videos include official meetings with foreign diplomats and the NATO summit; Zelenskiy also posts pictures of refugees and the destruction of Ukrainian cities.

While the information posted to accounts like those of Zelenskiy and other Ukrainian officials tends only to be verified, this also means that reporting on these channels comes more slowly.

Ньюсач/Двач

https://t.me/ru2ch_news

The channel is satirical and leans “liberal,” meaning that while it laughs at both Russia and Ukraine in the conflict, it tends to target the Russian government and soldiers more than Ukrainian, and almost never mocks Russian oppositionists.

The channel distributes at times brutal content, such as automobile accidents or violent crimes, often accompanied by video or images. They now focus on the violence and cruelty of the war in Ukraine, and show explosions, rocket launches, destruction of military or civilian objects, the dead and wounded, and torture. They also focus on violations of human rights, like Russian soldiers marauding and breaking up protests in occupied Ukrainian cities, or Ukrainians shooting captured Russians in the legs.

Content includes linked articles, photographs, videos, memes, and jokes, and generally link to sources.

Faridaily

https://t.me/faridaily

A channel started by the independent journalist Farida Rusamovaya who worked at RBK, the Russian service of the BBC, Meduza and Dozhd. This offers some of the most important and breaking news about what is going on inside Russia and in the war. She regularly posts reports of crackdowns on dissent.

соловьёв or Soloviev Live

https://t.me/SolovievLive

Vladimir Solovyov is a well-known Russian writer, propagandist, and talk-show host. His talk show is known for disseminating disinformation alongside anti-Western and anti-Ukrainian rhetoric. According to the United States Department of State, Solovyov is one of the Kremlin’s most “energetic” propagandists, who relies on insults and humiliation to degrade his targets. His videos were blocked on YouTube for calling for more bombing, including of civilian targets, in Kyiv.

Solovyov’s Telegram channel, which can be classified as agitprop, is an example of how news of the war and other events are represented to the general public in Russia. Claims made before the war included that Ukraine is a Nazi state and that Ukraine and other Western countries such as Poland intended to attack Russia. After the war’s onset, Soloviev spread propaganda that Ukrainians were staging attacks on their own people to implicate the Russians.

Wagner Group

https://t.me/vagner_group

This Telegram channel, which might be classified as terrorist or pro-terrorist, claims to represent the PMC Wagner Group. (It is affiliated with other Telegram channels including Reverse Side of the Medal, Govorit Topaz, and Vladlen Tatarsky.) In the early days of the war, terrorist or pro-terrorist accounts tended to disseminate information on the war with the attitude that it would be an “easy victory,” as did official state channels. However, the rhetoric of terrorist channels changed quickly – even faster than official channels – and they began to admit losses in the war.

Present in Ukraine, Syria, and African countries for the past 8 years, the Wagner Group is a private military company with alleged links to the Kremlin. The Russian government has always denied any connection, though the BBC reported claims that the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, funds the group.

The Wagner Group has an estimated 5000 mercenaries active worldwide. The BBC also reported suspicions that Wagner Group soldiers executed “false flag” attacks in Eastern Ukraine in the weeks leading up to the war, a pretext for Russia to attack.

The channel includes reports on the war, including fighting, images of soldiers’ funerals, as well as politics – a recent headline announces that Boris Johnson has received the title of Honorary Citizen of Odessa.

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