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Telegram: Where Russians turn for uncensored Ukraine news

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, Russian journalist Farida Rustamova used the Telegram chat app for one purpose: to message her friends.

But as authorities shut down media outlets that strayed from the official line, including the publications she wrote for, she began posting her articles on Telegram. Her feed there – where she wrote about the consolidation of Russian elites around President Vladimir V. Putin and the reaction of state media workers to an on-air protest – has already garnered more than 22,000 subscribers.

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

While Russia has silenced independent news outlets and banned social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, Telegram has become the largest remaining medium for unrestricted news. 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, an analytics firm. (There have 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, although the Kremlin has worked hard to infiltrate Telegram channels,” said Ilya Shepelin, who covered media for independent TV channel Rain. , now closed, and created a blog critical of the war.

After the independent Echo Moscow radio station closed last month, its deputy editor, Tatiana Felgengauer said, its Telegram audience 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 take my news there,” said Dmitry Ivanov, who is studying computer science at a Moscow university. He said he relied on Telegram to see “the same media I trust and whose sites I 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 Telegram channel to ensure 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 unfettered 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, the host of a prime-time talk show who is a source of anti-Ukrainian vitriol every weeknight, has more than a million subscribers. Channels supporting Russia’s war, many run by unidentified users, are proliferating.

Public media outlets, such as Tass and RIA News, also broadcast their reports via Telegram.

Telegram also opened the door to critics of President Vladimir V. Putin from the right, with diehards urging the Kremlin to do more.

Yuri Podolyaka, a military analyst who tends to repeat the government line when appearing on popular Russian state broadcaster Channel One, takes a markedly different approach in the videos he posts on Telegram.

Pro-Russian allies in southeastern Ukraine are not getting enough equipment, he says. The Russian government is taking too long to set up occupation administrations in the cities it has taken. And the refugees from Ukraine claim in vain the payments of approximately 120 dollars promised by Mr. Putin.

“This is not just a war being fought on the front lines, this is a war for people’s minds,” he warned in a video posted Saturday to his more than 1.6 million of followers.

Igor I. Strelkov, a veteran of the Russian army and former defense minister of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, has attracted more than 250,000 subscribers to his Telegram channel by analyzing issues related to how the war is conducted, providing a reality check for government propaganda. how perfectly the war is going.

“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 clip released this week, conceding that some might consider his opinions as a betrayal. “Unfortunately, I see the Ukrainian military command acting with an order of magnitude more competent than the Russian command.”

Indeed, the word “war”, legally banned in Russia in relation to Ukraine, comes up frequently on Telegram among the more personal and partisan opinions of supporters and opponents.

One of the government’s most vocal cheerleaders is Ramzan Kadyrov, the pugnacious leader of Chechnya, whose Telegram channel has mushroomed to nearly two million subscribers from around 300,000 before the war.

He frequently posts videos of his troops besieging Mariupol, often displaying questionable military methods like standing in front of an open window while firing a machine gun at an unseen enemy.

Mr Kadyrov has been derided as a ‘TikTok warrior’ online after a photo in a series meant to depict his own field trip to Ukraine showed him praying at the petrol station in a brand that only exists in Russia.

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

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

Rather than stifle Telegram, the Kremlin is trying to control the narrative there, not just through its own channels but by paying for messages, said Mr. Shepelin, the media analyst. The number of subscribers to official or intransigent channels eclipses the audience of opponents.

Pavel Chikov, the head of the Agora Human Rights group, which has represented Telegram in Russia as an attorney, said the company may have kept its Russian operations so far because authorities saw fit to spread the word. idea that they had some connection with Telegram. and its founder, Pavel V. Durov, “whether it’s true or not.”

Mr. Chikov said he did not believe Telegram was providing sensitive communications information to the Russian government or others because if it did, he said, “people all over the world would stop to use it”.

But security researchers have sounded the alarm about how Telegram users could be exposed. Messages, videos, voice notes and photos exchanged through the app are not end-to-end encrypted by default and are stored on company servers. This makes them vulnerable to hacking, government requests or employee snooping, said Matthew D. Green, privacy technology expert and associate professor at Johns Hopkins University.

“A service like that is an incredibly juicy target for intelligence agencies, Russian agencies and others,” Green said.

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

Kevin Rothrock, editor of the English version of Meduza, said he was concerned about how easily someone with sinister intentions could glean 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.

The company is run by Mr. Durov, a Russian émigré who co-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’s unclear if Nikolai also sold his share or where he lives.)

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

At the start of the war, he said the app would consider suspending all services in Russia and Ukraine to avoid a flood of unverified information. An outcry ensued and within hours Mr Durov was back on the plan.

Perhaps one of the biggest risks for Russians who rely on Telegram for independent journalism is that the shares of the company appear to be mostly in the hands of one man.

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

“We all hope Telegram plays well with us,” Rothrock said. “That’s a lot of eggs in one basket.”

Valeriya Safronova and Adam Satariano reported from London, and Neil MacFarquhar from Istanbul. Ivan NechepurenkoAlina Lobzina and Milana Mazaeva contributed report.

nytimes Gt

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