This Platform Has Become the Go-To App in the Ukraine War
Telegram's billionaire ownership raises familiar questions
After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Russian authorities blocked Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. However, one major social media platform remained unscathed: Telegram, which is roughly akin to WhatsApp meets Twitter. It combines an encrypted messaging and calling app, a Twitter-like news feed, and the ability to create groups of hundreds of thousands of members. (WhatsApp limits groups to 256.) Its design is excellent compared to peers such as Twitter -- it shows information cleanly and unalgorithmically, with far fewer ads.
Telegram has become a go-to source of news on the Ukraine war. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky uses it to disseminate his selfie videos. Channels focused on the besieged Mariupol show the aftereffects of Russian bombs. Banned independent Russian news outlets have seen their Telegram channels surge. The New York Times was blocked and removed its reporters from Russia in March, but launched a Telegram channel to reach Russian readers.
Why hasn't the Kremlin cracked down on this source for independent media? Russia's technology regulator tried to block the app in 2018, but was technically incapable of doing so. It stopped trying to block the app in 2020; instead, it has used the platform for its own purposes. Russian state outlets and propagandists, like RT and TV host Vladimir Solovyov, have their own channels with massive followings. Pro-Russian Telegram channels have reported on Ukrainian troop movements. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, whose forces have been spotted in Mariupol, has a Telegram channel that has grown astronomically since the war started.
Telegram illustrates both the promise and peril of social media. Its channels can circumvent autocratic censorship, but also be a vector for toxic propaganda. Its groups helped tens of thousands of anti-war Russians find the right border crossings and flights to flee the country and facilitated Belarusian railway workers in sabotaging Russian military shipments, but also helped rioters plan an assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. It offers encrypted chats -- linked to a user's mobile phone number -- to circumvent surveillance, but these features are not turned on by default and do not apply to group chats.
What is Telegram's approach to content moderation? The platform's lax approach would make "free speech absolutist" Elon Musk happy. Its Terms of Service prohibit scamming or spamming, illegal pornographic content, and the promotion of violence. It has removed thousands of channels for inciting violence, but many others have remained up. In the wake of January 6, right-wing extremists in the United States flocked to Telegram after Facebook and Twitter cracked down on extremism.
As with Facebook (and potentially Twitter if Elon Musk gets his way), a billionaire is behind Telegram. Pavel Durov was born in Leningrad in 1984. In 2006, he founded the social media site VKontakte, similar to Facebook. He was referred to as "Russia's Mark Zuckerberg" and offered Edward Snowden a job at the company. But as Russia grew more autocratic, his platform became imperiled. In 2013, pro-Putin allies took control of VKontakte; Durov refused to hand over details of protesters in Ukraine's Euromaidan movement. Durov founded Telegram in 2013 with his brother Nikolai. Pavel Durov fled Russia in 2014. He is now a French citizen and lives in Dubai.
As evidenced by Telegram's hands-off approach to content moderation, Durov's politics are libertarian. He has thus far not come out for or against the Ukraine war; however, he released a statement in early March saying the conflict was "tragic" and "personal" for him as he had Ukrainian relatives, and reminded users that he was forced to flee Russia in 2014.
Telegram downloads have surged in the wake of the Ukraine war. According to the analytics company Sensor Tower, downloads were up in February-March 2022 by 89 percent in Ukraine and 17 percent in Russia, compared with the year before.
While Telegram offers the promise of circumventing government censorship and surveillance, the problem with Telegram is that much power is in the hands of one man and not a lot is known about how the company operates. It is registered as a company in the British Virgin Islands and operates with an LLC in the United Arab Emirates. It is a private company and its investors are not fully disclosed. Reportedly, it has approximately 500 employees, a tiny number relative to its users -- over 500 million monthly active users worldwide.
Durov's frequent comparisons with Zuckerberg serve as a cautionary tale. Once seen as a new tech wonderboy, Zuckerberg is now one of the wealthiest people in the United States and has put his company's profits over tamping down on misinformation and hate speech. Durov is now the wealthiest person in Dubai, and something of a mystery figure. The question is, if threatened by the Russian government again, where would his loyalties lie?
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