How Telegram became one of the main digital tools of this war

© The Ukrainian Week

NADIA BALOVSYAK, The Ukrainian Week

Why is Pavel Durov’s messaging app so popular, and how secure is it?

From the 24th of February onwards, Telegram became increasingly popular. In the first days, it was the Telegram channels – personal, official as well as journalistic that entered a new regime of 24/7 activity, thereby becoming the leading providers of operative information for Ukrainians and not only them – Russia has also seen an increase in the interest of Telegram. Let’s investigate the essence of the Telegram phenomenon in wartime and whether Durov’s product brings any risks to the state as well as common consumers.

Not a crisis but rather a prospect

In Ukraine, from the beginning of the full-scale war, Telegram was one of the main sources of news consumption. According to data collected by Kantar Ukraine in mid-March of this year, Ukrainians have viewed official (government) Telegram channels the most – 57% of those who participated in the survey. News channels on Telegram were in second place at 37%.

Besides the fact that Telegram became a major source of information, the messaging app became more and more actively used in Ukraine. According to Sensor Tower, a company that deals with mobile analytics, the number of downloads of Telegram and Signal have increased significantly from the beginning of the full-scale invasion. During the first month of war, the popularity of Telegram increased by 90%.

In Russia, the popularity of Telegram as a source of news is also growing. Back in March, according to data taken from ‘Megafon’, a mobile operator, Telegram has surpassed Whatsapp in popularity. Its share of total social messaging traffic increased from 48% to 63%. The comparison of these two platforms in such a context is not appropriate however, as the analysts of the investigation claim that there are at least two reasons for such a rapid increase in interest for Telegram. The first reason is that Telegram became a source of receiving news about the war in Ukraine and the second reason – users massively switched to Telegram in light of the prohibition of other social media in Russia. Additionally, in support of this hypothesis, it has been found that an average user consumes 101 megabytes of information in Telegram while only 26 megabytes in Whatsapp.

Telegram, as a project, offers its users the possibility of two products. Firstly, it is the fact that Telegram is a messenger app which offers security (even though this claim is debatable) and secondly, this is a platform used for sharing content. The second function can be seen through Telegram channels – special accounts that can be used to sign up as a means of receiving content provided by them, both through a desktop version of the app, smartphone or even through web interface (via browser).

The war became a new possibility for Telegram to spread content and attract new audiences. The popularity of Telegram as a messenger service is strongly bound to the network effect. The more people use this product, the more people will choose to use it in the future as well. One can be an advocate of security and privacy and hence use Signal or Threema out of principle, but if work communication is done through Facebook, while one’s family uses Viber, then one must install these messaging apps and use them. Otherwise, he or she will simply lose communication (or be forced to search for other alternatives). If it is possible to find alternative ways of communicating privately, then for work matters, this is more challenging. Telegram and its founders created it as a protected messenger app. This was back in 2013-14, when the world had already seen the revelation of Edward Snowden. It was because of this event that a demand for secure and private means of communication skyrocketed. Later, when Telegram became a platform for spreading content, it already had a large base of users, which happily met the new functions of this product.

Approximately then, in 2015-16, the biggest social media platforms started to switch to an algorithmic news feed system. If users saw posts from pages and other users that they were following beforehand, now, the algorithmic selection of content basically deprived users of merely reading content. The news feed now not only had advertisements but also notifications of comments left under three-day-old posts, posts by friends and much more. Meanwhile, it became harder for owners of social media pages to stay visible to their followers without buying ads. Telegram on the other hand, was designed to not have this algorithmic selection of content and any kind of influence of algorithms on what can be seen by the user. One can simply subscribe to a channel and read its content. All these characteristics of Telegram as a media platform brought many major new channels and traditional media to open their own Telegram channels. At one point, Telegram became more operative than social media platforms and websites and simultaneously, the most simple way of delivering content. A while back, a similar manner of news consumption was possible through RSS-feed subscription, however, when it comes to user interaction and the simplicity of adding new sources of information, Telegram has no competitors at the moment. If adding synchronisation of subscriptions in the app, web-version or mobile-view to the mix, it becomes apparent as to why this made Telegram a unique tool for sharing content and why it became the main source of information.

Another feature that should not be left unnoticed are Telegram Bots. Their simple creation and programming allowed the automation of many processes, above all, for business. Soon enough, government organisations also started to use this function. If the exchange of information or consulting can be automated, then Telegram Bots were the ideal tool to enforce it.

These are the key reasons that made Telegram a unique platform with exceptional functions which became especially necessary in wartime. The Telegram Bot can notify about air raids even where there are no sirens to be heard. The Telegram Bot function can also provide information of enemy armoured vehicle movement and whereabouts, making every Ukrainian able to report sighted enemies, and essentially, a scout. Telegram channels also aided volunteers in coordinating their work, refugees finding places to sleep, finding out the various paperwork requirements upon arrival in various foreign countries and even finding people which have been declared missing during the war.

What about money and intelligence services?

The popularity of Telegram in Ukraine and the transformation of this platform into one of the most important digital tools of this war forces one to reflect about the creators and founder of Telegram in more detail, as well as the company’s history and previous dealings.

Telegram was created by Pavel Durov, the founder of the popular Russian social media platform Vkontakte. Durov created Telegram when he realised that he does not have any reliable and secure means of communicating. A designated team working on Telegram started its work back when Durov was still the owner of Vkontakte in 2012-13. However, he was met with complaints from Russian intelligence and security services, entangled with the rise of the Euromaidan demonstrations, as he was demanded to block content related to them. During the years of 2013-14, the other shareholders of Vkontakte carried out a set of agreements which ultimately led to Durov losing his stake in the company – he sold part of it in December of 2013 to other investors and in September 2014, purchased the remainder of his shares and became the sole owner of the social media platform. Meanwhile, Durov began developing Telegram. It was claimed that it was his own investments that were used to cover the costs of the development. In order to distance himself from the Russian government, Durov left Russia back in 2014. In 2021, he was granted citizenship by the United Arab Emirates and France.

However, the creation and support of such a project like Telegram requires enormous financial expenses. Only by the end of 2021, the first ads were placed on Telegram, even though the very presence of ads usually indicates the monetisation of such projects. The question of who financed Telegram until then and where did the financing come from for creating this final product, was always an active topic of discussion regarding the app. In 2018, Telegram (i.e. the company) attempted to introduce its own cryptocurrency by the name of Gram and later initiated its Initial Coin Offering (ICO), however, this initiative did not reach any major success despite the fact that there was a huge queue of investors ready to invest in Telegram. An American court halted the procedure of ICO and soon enough obliged Durov to return the money spent by the investors. By early 2021, Telegram attracted $1 Billion thanks to the private placement of bonds through Russian banks. This raised a lot of questions with regards to who actually bought the bonds, considering that the organisers of the bond placement were VTB Capital, Aton and possibly Alpha Kapital. For many experts, this event served as evidence of Telegram developers having close connections with the Russian government.

Telegram’s relations with the Russian government deserve a separate mention. The conflict between Telegram and Roskomnadzor (The Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media), the government body responsible for online censorship in Russia, lasted for several years. The Russian government tried to block Telegram, however the project found its ways to work in Russia. This lasted for more than two years, until one point, when the Russian government not only stopped the persecution of Telegram but started to open its own Telegram channels (including the Roskomnadzor itself). One of the official reasons for the abrupt halt of persecuting Telegram was the agreement of the administration of the company to provide personal data by request of Russian security services. Another sign of the warming relations between the government and Telegram was the removal of the bot function ‘Умного голосования’ or ‘Smart Voting’, a project brought to life by Alexei Navalny, for the purpose of the previous elections in the country.

From time to time, the media received information indicating the existence of a backdoor (a secret access to the product) which could be used by Russian security services to obtain personal data of users. Allegedly, this was the reason that Telegram was eventually allowed to operate in Russia.

Security and War

From the start of the war and the mass ban of foreign online social media platforms in Russia, it was questioned whether Telegram would continue to work there. This was considering the fact that Russians could find information that was not available to them on TV. Even though Roskomnadzor often expressed dissatisfaction with Telegram from time to time, the service continues to work in the country and it seems that it will not share the fate of Facebook or Twitter. For Ukrainians, this is becoming an increasing cause for concern, considering the popularity of Telegram and the widespread usage in various aspects in Ukraine.

The security of Telegram can be seen in two different types of context – as an instrument of individual communication (or collective, if one considers the function of group chats), in other words, Telegram as a messaging app, but also as a platform for sharing content. When speaking of the second feature of Telegram, it can be said that it does not have any competition, neither with regards to the speed nor the sharing of information. The main precaution here is to ensure that the administrators of Telegram channels would be bound by basic security rules – a two-factor authentication process and the ability to check the devices connected to running the channel. It is crucial not to forget that Telegram is used for the spreading of pro-Russian narratives, not only before the war but also after the full-scale invasion. Pro-Russian Telegram channels which were identified multiple times by the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine, continue to work for the enemy and seemingly, no one intends to block them.

At the same time, Telegram, as a messaging app, poses a serious threat to its users. The presence of a closed backend (part of the server), the storage of date on a server and the usage of end-to-end encryption is not for all dialogs but only secret chats – all of this eliminates the claims of the Telegram developer team regarding the security of the app.

Taking into account the background of Telegram’s founder and his non-transparent relationship with the Russian government, one may start to think about any potential alternatives for this social media platform. Currently, an easy and convenient platform is simply hard to find. Perhaps, the alternative will reveal itself based on the channels (communities) in Whatsapp, which the company has started to test a few months ago.