Where do Russians get uncensored information about Ukraine?

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, Russian journalist Farida Rustamova only used Telegram for one thing: to communicate with her friends.

But as authorities shut down media outlets that deviated from the official line, including publications Rustamova had written for, she began uploading her articles to Telegram. His posts – in which he wrote about the consolidation of Russian elites around President Vladimir Putin and the reaction of state media workers to an on-air protest – already have more than 22,000 subscribers.

“It’s one of the few remaining channels where you can receive information,” he said in a Telegram call.

While Russia has silenced independent media and banned platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, Telegram has become the most important channel for unrestricted access to information. Since the start of the war, it has been the most downloaded app in Russia, with around 4.4 million downloads, according to Sensor Tower, a company that analyzes the data. (There have also been 124 million Telegram downloads in Russia since January 2014, according to Sensor Tower.)

“Telegram is the only place in Russia where people can freely exchange opinions and information, even though the Kremlin has made efforts to infiltrate Telegram channels,” said Ilya Shepelin, who covered media for the independent TV channel. Rain, closed today. and who now writes a blog criticizing the war.

After independent Echo Moscow radio was shut down, its deputy editor, Tatiana Felgengauer, said its Telegram audience had doubled. And after Russian authorities blocked access to popular Russian news site Meduza in early March, its Telegram subscriptions doubled to nearly 1.2 million.

“I get the news here,” said Dmitry Ivanov, who is studying computer science at a Moscow university. He said he relied on Telegram to watch “the same media that I trust and whose sites I have read before”.

War opponents use the platform for everything from organizing anti-war protests to sharing Western media reports. In March, The New York Times launched its own channel on Telegram to ensure that readers in the region “can continue to access an accurate account of world events,” the company said in a statement.

But the freedom that has enabled the free exchange of information and opinions has also made Telegram a haven for misinformation, far-right propaganda and hate speech.

Propagandists have their own popular channels: Vladimir Solovyov, host of a prime-time TV show that airs sharp criticism of Ukraine every day of the week, has a million subscribers. Pro-Russian war channels abound, many operated by unidentified users.

State media, such as Tass and RIA News, also aired their news on Telegram.

Telegram has also opened the door to critics of President Vladimir Putin from the right, hardliners who are calling on the Kremlin to do more.

Yuri Podolyaka, a military analyst who often repeats the government line when appearing on popular state channel Channel One, takes a markedly different approach in the videos he posts on Telegram.

He says pro-Russian allies in southeastern Ukraine are not getting enough equipment. The government is taking too long to set up occupation governments in the cities it has captured. And the refugees from Ukraine ask in vain for the payment of the 120 dollars promised by Putin.

“It’s not just a war on the front lines, it’s a war for people’s minds,” he said in a video recently released to his more than 1.6 million of followers.

Igor I. Strelkov, a veteran of the Russian army and former Minister of Defense of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, has attracted more than 250,000 subscribers to his Telegram channel in which he discusses the problems of the strategy used in the war, which provides a counterweight to government propaganda that claims everything is going perfectly.

“I doubt that after losing the first golden month of the war, our forces will manage to encircle and destroy the Ukrainian force in Donbass,” he said in a video posted this week, acknowledging that his point of view view could be seen by some as betrayal. “Unfortunately, I see the Ukrainian military command acting more competently than the Russian command.”

In fact, the word “war”, which has been banned in Russia to refer to events in Ukraine, frequently appears on Telegram among the most personal and partisan opinions expressed by both supporters and opponents.

One of the most enthusiastic supporters is Ramzan Kadyrov, the bellicose leader of Chechnya, whose Telegram channel has grown from 300,000 subscribers before the war to nearly two million. He frequently posts videos of his troops besieging Mariupol, often showing questionable military methods, such as standing in front of an open window while firing a machine gun at an unseen enemy.

On the internet, Kadyrov has been adamantly dubbed a ‘Tiktok Warrior’ after a series of images purporting to show a visit to Ukraine surfaced a photo of him praying at a gas station owned by a brand that doesn’t exist. than in Russia.

Why doesn’t the Kremlin just ban Telegram, like it has so many other independent news sources? It has already done so, or attempted to do so, in 2018, after the company defied government orders to allow Russian security services access to its users’ data.

But the government did not have the technical means to block access to the application and it remained widely accessible to Russian users. In 2020, the government lifted the ban, saying Telegram had agreed to several conditions, including improving efforts to block terrorism and extremist content.

Instead of blocking Telegram, the Kremlin is trying to control the narrative there, not only through its own channels but also by paying for messages, said Shepelin, the media analyst. The number of subscribers to official or hard-line channels makes opponents’ audiences pale.

Pavel Chikov, head of human rights group Agora Human Rights Group, which has represented Telegram in Russia as a lawyer, said the company may have maintained operations in Russia so far because that the authorities of the country considered it useful to pass the idea that they have certain links with Telegram and its founder, Pavel V. Durov, “whether it is true or not”.

Chikov says he doesn’t believe Telegram is providing sensitive communications information to the Russian government or others because if it did, he said, “people all over the world would stop using it.” ‘utilize”.

But security experts have warned, with concern, of the exposure Telegram users could have. Messages, videos, voice notes and photos exchanged in the app are not end-to-end encrypted by default and are stored on company servers. That makes them vulnerable to hacking, being demanded by the government or scrutinized by a dissident employee, said Matthew D. Green, privacy technology expert and associate professor at Johns Hopkins University.

“Such a service is incredibly juicy as a target for intelligence agencies, Russian agencies and the like,” Green said.

Telegram said the data stored on its servers is encrypted and its main priority is protecting user privacy. But Green and other experts said Telegram’s approach makes communicating through the app less secure compared to other messaging services like Signal.

Kevin Rothrock, deputy editor of the English version of Meduza, expressed concern about how easily a malicious person could learn private information via Telegram.

“You can see who’s commenting, who’s in group chats, people’s phone numbers,” he said. “There is a rich database.”

Telegram did not respond to requests for comment on its policies and security.

Telegram is run by Durov, a Russian exile who founded it with his brother, Nikolai, in 2013 and now operates from Dubai.

The brothers had created one of Russia’s most popular social networking sites, but Pavel sold his share in 2013 and fled the country after refusing to give the government the private data of anti-Russian protesters in Ukraine. (It is unclear if Nikolai also sold his stake or where he lives.)

Durov said little publicly about the war. In early March, he took to Telegram to remind his followers why he left Russia. He also said his mother had Ukrainian roots and had many relatives in Ukraine, so the conflict was “personal” for him.

At the start of the war, he said the app would consider suspending service in Russia and Ukraine to avoid a flood of unverified information. A few hours after the scandal, Durov went back on his plan.

Perhaps one of the biggest risks for Russians who rely on Telegram for access to independent journalism is that the company’s shares appear to be, for the most part, in the hands of one man.

“The key question is whether you trust Pavel Durov or not,” said Chihkov, the lawyer.

“We all want Telegram to be nice to us,” Rothrock said. “There are a lot of eggs in this basket.”

Valeriya Safronova Yes adam satarian reported from London and Neil MacFarquhar from Istanbul. Ivan Nechepurenko@Alina Lobzina and Milana Mazaeva collaborated on the report.

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