Use of Telegram, the instant messaging app, has surged since the invasion. For Ukrainians it has become an indispensable source of local information and a conduit for military leaders’ messages of resistance. In Russia, it is one of the last apps standing; a vehicle for samizdat as well as state propaganda.
But several run-ins over content moderation have exposed the myth that Telegram is a passive platform. Its approach to misinformation and violent content is unclear, ad-hoc and appears to be largely subject to the whims of the app’s elusive founder, Pavel Durov.
In light of this growing popularity, it’s worth asking: what do we really know about the platform?
Who’s on Telegram?
Monthly installs of Telegram and Signal, another encrypted messaging app, have collectively tripled in Ukraine and Russia since the war started. It’s the largest spike in Telegram downloads since January 2021, when far-right influencers flocked to the platform following the US Capitol insurrection. Globally, the app has 550 million monthly active users. For comparison, Instagram has over 2 billion.
Telegram has also become the app of choice for dissidents in Hong Kong, Belarus and Iran and is particularly popular in Brazil, where it’s had 85 million downloads. During the invasion Ukrainian officials, including Zelensky himself, have relied on it to rally support or broadcast warnings about Russian attacks while citizens use it to access aid or escape. In Russia, the government has blocked access to Instagram and Facebook and yet Telegram survived the purge. Why?
What’s Telegram’s relationship with the Russian state?
Brothers Pavel and Nikolai Durov, Telegram’s founders, made their fortune by creating VKontakte – Russia’s answer to Facebook. In 2014, they were pushed out of the company and exiled to Dubai after refusing a request from Russia’s security services for information on the organisers of the Ukrainian Maidan protests. They went on to build Telegram as a haven for free speech.
In 2018, the app was banned in Russia amid growing global concern that it was becoming a hotbed of extremism. Embarrassingly for the Russian authorities, they lacked the technical ability to make the ban effective for any length of time. After two years of cat-and-mouse, the Kremlin lifted the ban, conceding it was pointless. The episode prompted Putin to start investing heavily in blocking technology.
Is it possible Durov struck a deal? “We really don’t know exactly what’s happened there,” says Dr Mariëlle Wijermars, professor of cybersecurity and politics at Maastricht University. “The Russians now say that Telegram is collaborating enough in combating extremism on their platform. Telegram of course says they did not have any agreement though. So this is the current status.”
What is its content policy?
Definitions of illegal content and the circumstances under which it would share data with governments are hard to find on Telegram’s website. Instead, company decisions are usually broadcast via Pavel Durov’s own Telegram channel. After concerns over graphic images were raised early on in the Ukraine conflict, Durov said some channels might be suspended, but then reversed course hours later after many users complained.
His decision lacked transparency but was probably the right one. “During times of conflict, we actually need open platforms to be able to share information and know what’s going on,” says Wijermars. “More strict moderation of graphic materials would mean that you would not get any images from Mariupol, for example. This is vital for tracking what is going on; for gathering evidence; for accountability measures; and for being able to prosecute afterwards.”
There’s little doubt that Telegram will soon have to face up to its role as a moderator. For now though, it has assumed another purpose: it has unwittingly become an archive of atrocities to which the world will one day have to return.