How Telegram became the hub of Russian propaganda

Ivan Makridin

 

This month, Ukraine’s parliament is considering a bill to ban the instant messaging service Telegram as a threat to national security. But over 70% of Ukrainians use it as a major source of information. Headquartered in Dubai, Telegram is purportedly out of the Kremlin’s reach. Durov, while refusing to be drawn on his position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, recently told the Financial Times that it was “very important for the world to retain Telegram as a neutral platform.” It has 900 million monthly users around the world, with the highest numbers of downloads recorded in India, Russia and the United States. Telegram’s popularity, particularly in Asia and Africa, and the lack of oversight and control over anonymous channels have made it the perfect platform to spread Kremlin-orchestrated disinformation. 

For my podcast The Day After Tomorrow, I spoke to investigative reporter Irina Pankratova of The Bell about how Telegram has been overwhelmed by wartime propaganda. Access to The Bell, an online Russian-language newspaper, was blocked in Russia last year and its founders have been designated as foreign agents. Pankratova herself was forced into exile in 2022, as it became increasingly dangerous for her to work in Russia. 

This conversation has been translated into English from Russian and edited for length and clarity.

Ivan Makridin: If I think back to 2016, Telegram was such a hotbed of liberalism. It was a place of freedom, where all sorts of opposition bloggers and journalists and politicians gathered. But then it changed quite dramatically. Tell us what happened.

Irina Pankratova: That’s the price of operating in Russia. Telegram could have been blocked like Instagram, like Facebook. The point of it being available and not being blocked is that propaganda is produced on the platform. If we take the top 10 most popular Russian-speaking channels on Telegram by number of subscribers, I think nine out of 10 will be propaganda channels. And because of that — despite the fact that there is also a lot of opposition and independent content on Telegram — the Russian authorities have no reason to block it. But this is the price that I assume the creators of Telegram quite consciously decided to pay.

One of the major investigative stories you published last year with reporters at Meduza was about a shadowy non-profit called Dialog and its influence on Telegram channels. Can you tell us a little bit about Dialog and who is behind it?

We did a couple of pieces. One was more focused on Dialog. There was also a piece we did about Rostec, which supplies military hardware to the Russian army. Rostec uses its wealth and power to coerce Telegram channels to spread propaganda. In essence, both Dialog and Rostec are organized in the same way. Public money is allocated and distributed for the development of propaganda on Telegram. Their budgets are astronomical. And if the administrators of channels do not compromise they find themselves facing criminal charges. 

I want to ask you about the Telegram channel War on Fakes. When the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, I remember many of my friends sent me posts from War on Fakes. In retrospect, it was innovative back then to pretend to be fighting propaganda while actually creating it.

This is exactly the Dialog project. To come up with innovative ways to spread propaganda. When you analyze the content on War on Fakes, it’s obvious that they are verifying and promoting false narratives. But they claim shamelessly to be fighting false narratives. And there are now dozens of similar channels — a whole network that quotes each other and just makes up stories and fakes screenshots and video images. But this fake content has a long shelf life on the internet because even when you fact-check, the same fake images keep showing up. And most people don’t bother to check the content they’re viewing, especially when the content is branded as a war on fakes. It’s simple but very effective.

And when there’s a million subscribers.

Exactly. The numbers reassure readers, as does the name “War on Fakes,” that they are reading accurate information.

War on Fakes was registered the day before the invasion of Ukraine. Was it some kind of preparation?

I don’t think they knew that the reason to create the channel was to justify the invasion of Ukraine. But I think they were given a deadline for when to produce their content. It tracks across a huge number of channels, especially these anonymous, pro-war military correspondents whose channels were all actively posting by the end of February 2022 and in early March. It’s impossible to believe that it was a coincidence that so many people were prepared to launch channels as soon as the invasion began. They must have been funded and given some sort of cue, without anyone explicitly saying, “Guys, we’re starting a war now and you have to propagandize it.” 

You mentioned the Telegram channel Rybar in your investigations into Kremlin propaganda channels. I subscribed to it in 2017-2018, because they were the only ones who were writing about what the Wagner Group and other paramilitary groups were doing in Africa and the Middle East. I even saw an infographic from Rybar in, I think, The New York Times…

You can’t objectively say that Rybar are just stupid propagandists. It’s not War on Fakes, where 10 idiots are sitting there cranking out fake news. Rybar has a real editorial office, with real employees. There are people there who know several languages, who can read Arabic. They have people translating propaganda in French so they can spread it in Europe. They even gave a course on working with open data at some university in Russia. So this is an active, strong, serious resource. And that makes Rybar more dangerous. 

I also wanted to ask about your recent piece about the reaction of Russian Telegram channels to Alexei Navalny’s death. You wrote that the channels began their coverage much earlier than traditional news agencies like TASS and RIA Novosti. Does this mean that the Kremlin now treats Telegram channels as a more convenient and effective way to put out information?

Yes, I think so. In addition, the channels themselves can find and post information quickly. In the case of Navalny’s death, I found at least one channel, a small channel, published the news of Navalny’s death by mistake before the official announcement. Literally three minutes before. So the channel already had it — they were told in advance, so that when the announcement was made they could immediately upload content that spread the Kremlin’s version. The channel only had like 2,000 subscribers, so nobody noticed. I also found a chat in which the administrator seemed to hint 24 hours before Navalny’s death that he was getting information from his “partners” that there was going to be breaking news.

What does that mean?

That maybe Navalny’s assassination was planned in advance? That Kremlin-friendly Telegram administrators already knew to expect something and to prepare their scripts in advance. It was all coordinated.

GLOBAL NEWS

The antipathy many Israelis feel towards Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu was evident in mass protests even as the country prepared to be attacked by Iran over the weekend. But in the aftermath of that attack, the antipathy some Iranians feel towards their own leadership made itself clear. Graffiti reportedly from Iran that encouraged Israel to attack Iran’s much-hated Revolutionary Guard was seen across social media. Inevitably, the Iranian authorities responded by announcing that it would arrest citizens who showed support for Israel on social media. Talk about false narratives — two unpopular regimes threaten to lead the world towards war in defense of their people who have made it clear that war is not what they want.

Social media networks may have given Iranians an outlet to air legitimate grievances against their leaders. But, predictably, these networks were also awash with misinformation in the hours after Iran fired drones and missiles directly at Israel last week in an act of largely performative retaliation. Researchers at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue noted that dozens of “false, misleading, or AI generated images and videos” received “over 37 million views” on X alone. A significant majority of accounts spreading disinformation were paid-for blue tick accounts, which means that their posts were amplified by X’s algorithms. Armchair war correspondents purporting to use open source intelligence are particularly enthusiastic spreaders of conspiracies and falsified footage. As journalist Shayan Sardarizadeh posted on X, “posting unverified and unsourced videos from Telegram isn’t osint work.”

Incidentally, Pavel Durov is the latest high-profile Russian to submit himself to a sit-down interview with Tucker Carlson. Debuting his Telegram channel with the interview, Carlson used it to make his usual partisan arguments. Pausing the interview to “point something out,” the conservative pundit praised Durov for choosing to leave Russia rather than compromise “his commitment to free speech.” You “gotta compare that to what Mark Zuckerberg did or Parag Agrawal,” Carlson said, referring to Meta’s CEO and the former CEO of Twitter, respectively. “Both of them have collaborated with governments to censor people and that’s shameful.” This led Carlson to describe Telegram as a “bastion of free speech.” Later in the interview, Carlson prompted Durov to reveal that he had received a letter from an unnamed Democratic U.S. congressman to share all the data he had “in relation to what they called this ‘uprising,'” a reference to the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. So, Carlson weighed in, “they wanted data on people who voted for the other guy in the election?” As if the request covered any supporter of former President Donald Trump rather than those involved in the riots. Carlson should feel right at home on Telegram with its legions of right-wing conspiracy theorists and propagandists.

WHAT WE’RE READING

As global panic (or belated recognition) grows about the effect of disinformation on every aspect of our lives, Manvir Singh suggests in The New Yorker that “it’s possible that we’ve been misinformed about how to fight misinformation.” More than “Russian bots or click-hungry algorithms,” he writes, “a crisis of trust and legitimacy seems to lie behind the proliferation of paranoid falsehoods.”

The remainder of the newsletter was curated by Shougat Dasgupta.

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.