As Telegram's Popularity Soars, Is It 'A Spy In Every Ukrainian's Pocket'? (2024)

KYIV -- Whenever Russia launches drones and missiles against Ukrainian cities, mobile phones vibrate and the unpleasant sound of an air-raid siren goes off.

During such air alerts, many Ukrainians turn to Telegram channels that aggregate official and unofficial information about attacks to decide whether to seek shelter.

"I never take cover anyway, but I am calmer once I know what's going on," psychology student Ilya Yeremenko told RFE/RL. "A feeling of control, even if illusory, is better than a sense of helplessness."

Quick access to unrestricted information has pushed the Telegram messaging app to become a leading news source in wartime Ukraine.

The Dubai-based platform, boasting over 900 million users worldwide, was founded by Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov in 2013. In his first major interview in seven years, which he gave to U.S. commentator Tucker Carlson on April 17, Durov vowed Telegram aims to be a "neutral platform" and not a "player in geopolitics."

In Ukraine, though, critics worry it spreads misinformation and facilitates illegal actions. Some accuse Telegram of ties to the Russian state and of contributing to its war effort. Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, has registered a bill that aims to regulate the workings of the platform. But it seems unlikely lawmakers will try to shut the popular application down altogether.

Invasion Spike

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 gave a huge boost to Telegram's popularity in Ukraine.

When Russian rockets rained down on Ukrainian cities and Russian troops streamed across the country's borders, Ihor Lachenkov, creator and author of one of Ukraine's most popular Telegram channels, Lachen Pyshe, was in his native Dnipro monitoring events and posting news around the clock. Within the first 24 hours, his audience nearly tripled from 70,000 to about 200,000.

"People flocked to my channel because it was one of the first to say that the war had started, and it pushed out timely notifications about rocket attacks even before the air-raid alarms started to work properly," Lachenkov told RFE/RL.

Back then, Ukraine's main television channels began broadcasting a unified, state-controlled news program known as the United Telemarathon to combat the spread of enemy propaganda and disinformation.

SEE ALSO:How Telegram Users Found A Way Through Belarus's Internet Lockdown

But those seeking quicker, more specific, or unofficial information turned to Telegram channels.

Primarily a messaging app, Telegram owes its success as a news source to its straightforward design. Users can easily set up channels and post content to an unlimited number of followers in a top-down manner with no algorithms interfering and almost no advertising.

"There is no other platform that can beat Telegram in terms of audience outreach," Lachenkov said, adding that Facebook and Instagram are not only less convenient, but also filter out some popular war-related content as too graphic or purportedly promoting hate speech or violence.

The popularity of Telegram in Ukraine has surged since the invasion, with as many as 72 percent of Ukrainians using it to get their news in 2023, compared to 20 percent in 2021, according to a 2023 study by Internews. It eclipses online news websites (41 percent), TV (30 percent), radio (10 percent), and print (3 percent), as well as other social media and apps. The nearest competitors on the list are Facebook with 19 percent and YouTube with 16.

Ukrainian officials and institutions -- including President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the SBU intelligence service, and popular Mykolayiv region Governor Vitaliy Kim -- run their own hugely popular channels, contributing to Telegram's boom. However, only 12 of the app’s 100 most popular channels belong to established media, officials, or public figures.

Lachen Pyshe, which now has over 1.5 million followers, made Lachenkov, 24, one of the country's top influencers. He has raised millions of dollars for the Ukrainian military and was one of those representing Ukraine when the European Parliament awarded the Ukrainian people the Sakharov Prize in December 2022.

Russian Tool?

Unlike Lachen Pyshe, however, almost all big Telegram channels in Ukraine are run anonymously, and their wartime role is far more ambiguous.

Many popular channels mix information about air attacks with lurid content, often sensationally presented. Despite having millions of followers, they often ignore accepted journalistic standards.

Unlike official media in Ukraine, many Telegram channels are in Russian, and some are widely regarded as pro-Moscow. The SBU published a list of channels it said "carry out special information and psychological operations in the interests of the Russian Federation" in March 2022 and later expanded it. Ukraine's Main Intelligence Directorate said Russia has spent $250 million to promote its narratives on the platform in Ukraine.

In addition, some influential Ukrainian channels -- such as "Vertical," "Joker," and "House of Cards" -- are likely secretly tied or close to the Ukrainian presidential administration, according to the Ukrainian media monitoring organization Detector Media. They publish unverifiable insider information and dark PR targeting critics, including independent journalists and political opponents.

SEE ALSO:The Telegram App Gives Voice To The Oppressed In Belarus And Russia. But Hate Groups Are Using It Too.

Telegram has also become a window into the other side of the war that bridges the widening gap between the Russian and Ukrainian information environments. Russian pro-Kremlin military channels are read by both soldiers and civilians in Ukraine.

"Threats posed by Telegram are not restricted to the dissemination of enemy propaganda," Yehor Aushev, an expert at the Institute of Cyber Warfare Research, told RFE/RL. "It is de facto a legalized darknet where one can not only buy drugs or access child p*rnography but also engage in cybercrime, as do multiple Russian hacker groups."

Access to users' data and devices, including geolocation and cameras, as well as data about networks of users make Telegram "a spy in every Ukrainian's pocket" with a wide range of potential military uses, Aushev said.

As Telegram's Popularity Soars, Is It 'A Spy In Every Ukrainian's Pocket'? (4)

In an e-mail to RFE/RL* following the initial publication of this article, Telegram representative Remi Vaughn disputed Aushev's comments, saying, "Telegram apps have open-source code and verifiable builds, together these two features make it physically impossible for Telegram to secretly access your camera and location."

He also said that "Telegram's moderators remove millions of pieces of harmful content each day. Over 66,000 groups and channels were banned related to child abuse in April."

The founder of Telegram also dismisses such accusations. Durov has repeatedly said he created Telegram, together with his younger brother Nikolai, who designed the encryption, to enable people to communicate freely after he refused to comply with Kremlin demands to shut down some groups of Euromaidan protesters on his VK social media platform. Durov left Russia in 2014.

Long regarded as secure and private, Telegram played an important role in the protests against strongman leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Belarus in 2020. It was a go-to place for independent Russian journalists when the repression of media freedom accelerated after the invasion of Ukraine.

But over time things evolved. Independent Russian media reports indicating that Telegram reached a compromise with the authorities and has been sharing some data with the security services for several years have raised concerns among officials and lawmakers in Ukraine, even though they have been denied by Telegram.

In the e-mail to RFE/RL, Telegram's Vaughn said: "There was no compromise and no data sharing with authorities in Russia."

Currently, services such as Facebook and Instagram are available in Russia only via VPN, while Telegram is not restricted and is even recommended for internal use by the Russian Army.

"We have more and more evidence that it is a tool in Russia's war against Ukraine," Aushev said.

Ukraine's military intelligence chief, Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov, said during the Kyiv Stratcom Forum 2024 that the app was "definitely problematic from the point of view of national security." Elsewhere, he has called for its regulation.

Working Solution

With worries mounting, the Ukrainian authorities began looking for a working solution to reduce the potential for harm from Telegram.

On March 25, a group of deputies registered a bill aimed at regulating the platform. The document states that Telegram "may be associated with the aggressor state" and proposes measures to force the company to cooperate with the Ukrainian state or face restrictions.

"We already know that Telegram is on good terms with Russian business, the [Federal Security Service], and the Russian Army. And we have zero control over it," Mykola Knyazhytskiy, a lawmaker from the opposition European Solidarity party and the initiator of the bill, told RFE/RL.

As Telegram's Popularity Soars, Is It 'A Spy In Every Ukrainian's Pocket'? (5)

The bill calls for obliging Telegram, as well as some other platforms, to establish a representative office in Ukraine or an EU country to address complaints about the dissemination of prohibited content.

According to Knyazhytskiy, the proposed legislation "practically extends the norms of the current media law to the domain of Telegram," is "aligned with EU regulations," and "does not target owners of individual channels."

Telegram has long been unprofitable and did not show official revenues for eight years until it enabled limited advertising in 2021 and premium subscriptions in 2022.

SEE ALSO:Ukraine Says Russia Used Cluster Bomb In Odesa Strike On 'Harry Potter' Castle

In 2018, the Durov brothers tried to raise money by launching a blockchain platform called Telegram Open Network (TON). Despite securing $1.7 billion for the project through the sale of cryptocurrency Gram, the company was ordered to return most of the money to investors before it launched after a legal battle with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Among multiple investors from several countries were Russian businessmen Roman Abramovich, Sergei Solonin, and David Yakobashvili. All of them have ties to the Kremlin, and Yakobashvili is under sanctions by Ukraine.

In 2021, after the collapse of the cryptocurrency project, Telegram raised more than $1 billion in a bond sale. Among the investors were VTB Capital, a company in which the Russian state holds a majority stake that has been run by Putin insider Andrei Kostin, and Alfa Capital, which is owned by Mikhail Fridman, a Russian tycoon who has been sanctioned by Ukraine and the European Union.

Some of the bonds issued in 2021 were traded on the St. Petersburg Stock Exchange.

A key provision of the bill obliges Telegram to disclose its ownership structure and sources of funding at the request of Ukraine’s National Council. Knyazhytskiy has said this is unlikely to happen, and that as a result the company would likely be designated “opaque” – a label that would prohibit its use by state and local authorities, as well as financial institutions that process personal data. An exception would be made for the security and defense forces, which would be able to keep using Telegram with the government’s permission.

SEE ALSO:'Success For Putin': Ukraine Struggles To Weather Russian Advance In The Donetsk Region

"Not only our society, but also our state institutions and large businesses use a platform that is closely tied to Russia. We need to stop it," Knyazhytskiy said.

In the e-mail to RFE/RL, Vaughn said that "Telegram's ownership structure, financing, and monetization strategy are public" and that "attempts to portray it as opaque are inherently flawed."

The proposed measures are not the first attempt to cut Ukraine out of the Russian information space. In 2017, President Petro Poroshenko introduced restrictions on the Russian social networks Odnoklassniki and VKontakte, as well as the Yandex search engine and the e-mail service.

In order to completely block Telegram in Ukraine, Apple and Google would need to remove it from their stores in Ukraine, analyst Aushev says.

As Telegram's Popularity Soars, Is It 'A Spy In Every Ukrainian's Pocket'? (7)

In March, the Ukrainian authorities sent Telegram a list of over 300 "potentially problematic" channels that was compiled by the special services, according to Ukrainian Forbes. Telegram representative Remi Vaughn said the company would check if they comply with the app's rules.

On April 24, Durov said that due to a request from Apple -- something he bemoaned in the interview with Carlson -- Telegram would restrict access to some war-related channels for users in Ukraine to keep the app in Apple’s store.

"If it were solely up to us, we would always provide our users with what they ask for -- uncensored access to information and opinions to make their own decisions," he said. "However, it's not always up to us."

A short time later, several chatbots used by Ukraine's security agencies to collect information about Russia's war effort, including about the positions of Russian forces, were temporarily blocked, which sparked angry reactions in Ukraine.

Lawmaker Yaroslav Yurchyshyn, chairman of Freedom of Speech Committee, attributed the shutdown to "Russian pressure."

* This story has been amended to include Telegram comment and to clarify the circ*mstances of bond sales.
As Telegram's Popularity Soars, Is It 'A Spy In Every Ukrainian's Pocket'? (2024)


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