Explained: Why Ukrainians Turned to the Telegram App as Russia Invaded

It was 11:25 p.m. in Lviv when a message appeared: “Aircraft alarm: Lviv, Rivne!!! No, it was not a notification issued by the government to warn Ukrainians of a missile strike. It was a message on the UkraineNOW telegram channel which has about a million people who have depended on it since the start of the war.

And it’s not the only channel alerting people to the war. As Russian troops and tanks arrived in Ukraine more than a month ago, various such channels on the messaging app helped keep people safe, demystify potential Russian misinformation, and counter threats. emerging threats.

The Ukrainian government, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, relies on the app for everything from rallying global support to broadcasting air raid warnings and maps of local bomb shelters. The same goes for the Russian government and Russian opposition channels, which now find themselves cut off from most mainstream social media. Amateur sleuths and senior military officials scour Ukrainian channels 24/7 for new details about the latest strikes or military developments.

Since it’s hard to imagine how Russia’s war in Ukraine would have been without Telegram, as it became an instrument for both governments and an information hub for citizens on both sides, we take a look at how the app is become the digital battlespace of warfare.

Ukraine’s date with Telegram

Telegram is a longtime 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 organize volunteers, often posting exclusive news.

When Covid-19 hit the world in 2020, thousands of Ukrainians turned to the @COVID19_Ukraine Telegram channel for daily pandemic updates. He shared daily case figures, the number of people who died and the latest government health advice.

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

However, when the Russian forces arrived, the nature of the channel quickly changed to one that provided real-time war updates. While Ukrainian officials have indeed 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 mass communication tool. Public or private channels, such as UkraineNOW, can have unlimited members, while public and private groups allow up to 200,000 members. WhatsApp’s maximum group size is 256 members, while Signal groups reach 1,000 people.

A Ukrainian serviceman takes a selfie while standing on top of a destroyed Russian tank after Ukrainian forces overran a Russian position outside kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 31, 2022. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

UkraineNOW is not alone, however. Telegram channels across Ukraine have grown in recent days, many of them thanks to numerous publications about the war. However, some of the fastest growing ones belong to official government chains. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, 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 February 23. Today, it has more than 1.4 million, according to a Telegram analysis website. Government departments and parliament, known as the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, have all shared hundreds of posts about the war.

As the war raged, Ukrainian officials discovered that Telegram had a range of practical uses – most cities and towns, and their local officials, have their own channels, and authorities share air raid warnings, bomb shelter maps, safety tips, and tips for spotting suspected Russian saboteurs. This is not only a way for Ukrainian officials to disseminate information, but also for civilians to provide them with information. People can report details of Russian troop and armored vehicle movements via Telegram bots, which relay the information to Ukrainian national and regional authorities. On March 8, Ukrainian security services said that one such piece of information allowed them to successfully attack Russian vehicles outside kyiv. “Your messages about enemy movement through the official chatbot…bring new trophies every day,” the agency tweeted.

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

With nearly 500,000 members before the Russian invasion, UkraineNOW was already one of the largest Telegram channels in the country. Today, a million people depend on it for updates on the war. Her posts, which are shared by other channels, get around 8 million views a day. On February 26, UkraineNOW posted 139 times and forwarded another 54 messages from other Telegram accounts, compared to only three to five times before the invasion. Its evolution and continued growth provide insight into how the social media app has helped keep citizens informed of Russia’s invasion with verified information at a time when platforms have struggled to manage a flood of misinformation and misinformation.

Has Russia also used the social media app to its advantage?

Telegram has always been hugely popular in Russia, and the ensuing media invasion and crackdown drove millions of news-hungry users to the service. A recent study by Logical, a UK-based tech company that fights misinformation, showed the app saw a 48% increase in subscribers since February 24.

The app is also used by many Russian opposition groups and was key to organizing the Belarusian 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 did what they do best: flood the social media platform with bots that help spread misinformation. Lately, many fake characters have appeared, posing as “war correspondents” to broadcast what the Kremlin wants to portray. One of the most popular is a Russian channel called “The War on Fakes” which has around 63,000 subscribers. When Telegram banned official Russian state media accounts for European Union users to comply with new restrictions, the Russians simply used these “mirror” channels which are harder to follow.

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

No monitoring. This is how the messaging app gained popularity and it continues to be the reason why it remains so widely used in this age when privacy and security are so important.

Founded in 2013 by now-exiled Russian brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov, the messaging app quickly became a haven for extremists like the Islamic State. While 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 or no moderation.

There is no algorithm keeping control or deciding what to show users or what to restrict, and its architecture allows for unlimited groups. Comments are easily disabled, turning channels into a megaphone broadcasting information to a captive audience of millions of subscribers. With just one click, a built-in button can translate messages from Russian to English or other languages, turning it into a mass communication tool. Also, unlike WhatsApp and Signal, Telegram does not use end-to-end encryption by default. It is only available in specific “secret chats”.

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

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