Why Telegram has become the go-to app for Ukrainians in the midst of war with Russia

We saw a bombardment of “imposter content” circulating – including fake news stories and deepfake videos – as Ukrainians and the rest of the world scrambled to find ways to tell the real story of the invasion.

The Telegram instant messaging app has emerged as one of the most important channels for doing so. But what about Telegram pulling in millions amid the chaos?

What is the telegram?

Telegram has been one of the most popular social apps in Ukraine and Russia since before the invasion began. It is a free cloud-based application that allows users to send and receive messages, calls, photos, videos, audio, and other files.

The platform was first created in 2013 by Russian-born tech entrepreneur Pavel Durov – a figure who has repeatedly confronted the increasingly authoritarian Russian state.

Now Telegram brings some clarity in a hazy environment of (mostly Russian) misinformation. He was even an essential point of contact for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

How it works?

Telegram has several key features that make it an attractive option for war-related communications.

It facilitates public and private groups of up to 200,000 users (where individuals can post messages and interact) and channels (which allow one-way streaming to channel subscribers).

Through these groups and channels, organizations can reach hundreds of thousands of people with messages and live audio/video streaming, all encrypted and stored on Telegram’s “cloud”.

However, while public and private communications on Telegram are encrypted, the default encryption setting is not end-to-end encryption, but rather occurs on a client/server basis.

Data is stored (albeit in encrypted form) in the cloud and distributed across multiple data centers around the world. These centers are controlled by legal persons in various jurisdictions and subject to the laws of those jurisdictions. This data could be decrypted, although it would be difficult.

But Telegram offers another layer of security with its “secret chat” feature. When enabled, communication between two users becomes end-to-end encrypted.

This data is not stored anywhere outside of the sender’s and recipient’s device. Even Telegram cannot access it. Users can also set a “self-destruct” timer on secret chats. Once the timer is over, the communication disappears forever.

Telegram claims to be even more secure than similar apps such as WhatsApp and Line.

One feature that differentiates it from WhatsApp is anonymous forwarding. When this option is activated, any message sent by a user is no longer traceable to him. The message includes their display name in plain text with no link, but this display name can easily be changed or deleted.

Also, although users need a phone number to create a Telegram account, the number does not have to stay linked to the account (whereas a phone number will always stay linked to a WhatsApp account).

Telegram meets politics (again)

Telegram has a history of being used as a protest tool in times of conflict and oppression.

In 2020, Belarusians opposed to Russian-backed authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko used the platform to stage a mass protest of around 100,000 people.

It is likely that similar actions took place in the context of the war against Ukraine. President Zelenskyy openly used Telegram to urge men to take up arms and resist the invasion.

Many Russians have also turned to the app for independent news, following the Kremlin’s crackdown on free media. Russian journalist Ilya Varlamov used Telegram to broadcast the invasion live and has acquired 1.3 million subscribers since the war began.

According to Time, there has been a 48% increase in the number of Russian subscribers on Telegram since February 24, when the Russian invasion began. Presumably, the bulk of these people are looking for independent information. Western media such as The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post also joined.

Telegram is also valuable for the Ukrainian military, as it can help circumvent Russian surveillance and conduct intelligence operations. Russian penetration into Ukrainian telecommunications networks was ubiquitous during the invasion.

The double-edged sword

As is the case with any powerful technology, the privacy offered by Telegram is also a problem in the wrong hands.

The Russian government runs Telegram channels for state-affiliated media, including Sputnik and RT News, and has encouraged users to turn to the app for pro-Kremlin content.

Meanwhile, Russian bot accounts are spreading disinformation, often posing as fake “war correspondents” supporting the Kremlin narrative.

Historically, Telegram has been profiled for all the wrong reasons. End-to-end encryption enabled illegal activity on the app (including by extremist groups such as the Islamic State).

A study has found that the number of Telegram groups or channels shared in cybercrime and darkweb hacking forums has increased from 172,035 in 2020 to over one million in 2021.

Telegram offers criminals and hackers the same opportunities as the Darknet, VPNs, and proxy servers: all of these tools make it difficult to locate a cybercriminal and therefore hamper intelligence-gathering efforts.

Telegram is also valuable for the Ukrainian military, as it can help circumvent Russian surveillance and conduct intelligence operations. Russian penetration into Ukrainian telecommunications networks was ubiquitous during the invasion.

The double-edged sword

As is the case with any powerful technology, the privacy offered by Telegram is also a problem in the wrong hands.

The Russian government runs Telegram channels for state-affiliated media, including Sputnik and RT News, and has encouraged users to turn to the app for pro-Kremlin content.

Meanwhile, Russian bot accounts are spreading disinformation, often posing as fake “war correspondents” supporting the Kremlin narrative.

Historically, Telegram has been profiled for all the wrong reasons. End-to-end encryption enabled illegal activity on the app (including by extremist groups such as the Islamic State).

A study has found that the number of Telegram groups or channels shared in cybercrime and darkweb hacking forums has increased from 172,035 in 2020 to over one million in 2021.

Telegram offers criminals and hackers the same opportunities as the Darknet, VPNs, and proxy servers: all of these tools make it difficult to locate a cybercriminal and therefore hamper intelligence-gathering efforts.

For example, the private Telegram channel “combolist” – on which hackers sold and circulated large amounts of stolen data – had more than 47,000 users before it was taken down.

And last year, an American non-profit group sued Apple and demanded that it remove Telegram from its app store (just as it removed Parler) for failing to prevent the spread of violent content after the attack on the Capitol of January 6, 2021. Telegram remains available on the Apple and Google application stores.

The pressure is rising

Telegram has a history of refusing moderate content calls (perhaps due to Durov’s libertarian view of how such technologies should be governed).

Also, the way the platform is built means that there is a limit to what it can be moderated. In many cases, Telegram will not be aware of illegal activity until it is notified.

And with end-to-end encryption, it’s hard to know just how much harmful content is circulating. Telegram can only intervene in a limited number of cases, and with a restricted capacity.

Still, it seems the mounting threats and legal concerns have begun to shake Durov’s resolve.

A ban on Telegram was enacted by Brazil’s Supreme Court on Friday, in an effort to prevent the spread of fake news ahead of Brazil’s October elections.

The ban was lifted two days later, after Durov took steps to comply with court demands. He deleted messages from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, deleted a fan account and promised monitoring of others.

Similarly, Germany threatened to shut down Telegram in February to prevent “hatred and incitement” from far-right groups and COVID conspirators. It was reported that over 60 channels were removed in response.

It seems that Telegram finds itself between a rock and a hard place. It is limited, by design, in how much it can filter content. Yet despite social and enforcement challenges, he continues to be a lifeline for those resisting the Russian invasion. (The conversation)

This story was published from a news feed with no text edits. Only the title has been changed.

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