Rarely moderated, Telegram becomes key lens for Ukraine invasion

As Russian forces shelled cities across Ukraine on Thursday, unidentified hackers took control of the website for the local government in the western province of Volyn, putting up a fake notice that government officials there had agreed to surrender.

The Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU, had prepared for such a scenario. It had been warning for days on social media, especially on Telegram, its most-followed social media channel, that Russia would try such a tactic. It quickly alerted its nearly 800,000 followers that the surrender claim was a fake, and that Volyn was still in Ukrainian hands.

But SBU’s Telegram channel doesn’t just counter Russian propaganda. Taking advantage of the fact that Telegram, unlike Facebook and Twitter, is almost entirely unmoderated, it publishes plenty of its own. Its feed is full of videos of despondent, apologetic and sometimes bloodied Russians who are allegedly prisoners of war, which some experts have argued violates the Geneva Conventions.

In addition to politicians, the SBU is just one of the many official Ukrainian government channels to rely on Telegram in recent weeks as a way to disseminate information. The app’s popularity in the region and its flexibility — it’s both a messaging app and a way to broadcast messages to an audience — have made it a crucial tool amid an ongoing battle to win the public information war against Russia.

Telegram has been popular for years in Eastern Europe and Russia, and last year reached a landmark 1 billion downloads. Since its launch, Telegram has marketed itself as a bastion of free speech, a message that has resonated with users who live in countries with heavy online censorship, but it has also drawn extremist organizations ranging from the Islamic State terrorist group to Jan. 6 insurrectionists.

That Telegram very rarely removes or blocks content — whether for being offensive, explicit or intentionally designed to mislead people — is by design. Founded by Pavel Durov, who was born in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) and now lives in Dubai, it was conceived explicitly as a way for internet users to get around government censorship and repression, said Nathalie Maréchal, policy manager at Ranking Digital Rights, an arm of the nonprofit New America Foundation.

“Durov is a pretty old-school cyber libertarian, who believes that encryption will set us free, and that computers and electronic communication transcend borders and transcend government oppression and are the pathway toward individual freedom,” she said.

“This is a company that is explicitly designed to be unaccountable, and whether you think that’s good or bad is in the eye of the beholder,” Maréchal said.

Originally marketed as a secure messaging app, Telegram is functionally three distinct services in one. Like Twitter, it allows users to broadcast messages to anyone who cares to follow, giving megaphones to anyone ranging from influencers to government intelligence agencies.

But Telegram’s chat features give cybersecurity experts pause. While it has end-to-end encryption for messages sent between individuals, it stores group conversations on its own servers, which can be accessed by its employees, said Eva Galperin, the director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“It’s pretty misleading, in that most of the Russians I’ve talked to are misled,” she said. “Telegram has a reputation in the Russian-speaking world as the secure messaging or communications app. If you define security as your communications are safe from the people who work at Telegram and people who can get information out of Telegram, that is simply not the case.”

Telegram, which reportedly has only around 30 employees, can be unresponsive to outside cybersecurity experts who try to help them, said Martin Albrecht, a professor of information security at the University of London, who authored a paper on Telegram’s cryptography and alerted the company to several exploitable weaknesses in it.

“Telegram is not a company that’s known for transparency,” he said. “We didn’t even get a name of anyone we were talking to” at the company until after the paper had published, he said.

That kind of unresponsiveness has led Telegram to become a breeding ground for disinformation. While American social media apps such as Facebook and Twitter now work to identify and remove government-run propaganda campaigns, Telegram is far less proactive, and often leaves up the same accounts that those other companies take down.

But Telegram has also developed a reputation as being uniquely immune to censorship in the former Soviet countries. Russia gave up trying to block it in 2018 after a lengthy legal battle. In 2020, when Belarus shut down most online services to quell pro-democracy protests, Telegram became one of the few ways for people to effectively communicate.

Russia has ratcheted up its censorship efforts in the days since it invaded Ukraine, blocking non-state news media from the airwaves and its citizens from directly accessing Facebook and Twitter. That makes Telegram the best way for everyday Russians to learn what’s happening with the invasion, said Natalia Krapiva, a legal strategist at Access Now, a digital rights nonprofit group.

“Right now, Telegram is the only independent social media that’s going to have dissenting voices, anti-war voices,” she said, adding that she hopes Russia doesn’t try again to block the service.

“It’s going to be a disaster if Telegram goes at this point,” Krapiva said.