Artem Kliuchnikov and his family fled Ukraine days before the Russian invasion.
Now safe in France with his wife and three of his children, Kliuchnikov scrolls through Telegram to learn more about the devastation happening in his home country.
“Like the bombing of the Mariupol maternity ward,” he said, “even before it made the headlines, you see the videos on Telegram channels.”
He adds: “Telegram has become my main source of information.”
As the war in Ukraine rages on, the Telegram messaging app has become the go-to place for unfiltered, live war updates for both Ukrainian refugees and increasingly isolated Russians.
What sets the app apart from its competitors is its use of what are called channels: public or private streams of photos and videos that can be set up by a person or organization. The channels have become popular with journalists in the field, aid workers and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who broadcasts on a Telegram channel. Channels can be followed by an unlimited number of people. Unlike Facebook, Twitter and other popular social networks, there are no advertisements on Telegram and the flow of information is not driven by an algorithm.
Andrey, a Russian entrepreneur living in Brazil who, fearing reprisals, asked NPR not to use his last name, said Telegram has become one of the few places where Russians can access independent information about the war.
“There are several million Russians who can lift their heads from the propaganda and try to look for other sources, and I would say most look for it on Telegram,” he said.
Telegram, which has little control over its content, has also become a hub for Russian propaganda and disinformation. Many pro-Kremlin channels have become popular, alongside testimonies from journalists and other independent observers.
“Russians are really out of touch with the reality of what is happening to their country,” Andrey said. “So Telegram has become essential to understand what is happening in the Russian-speaking world.”
Founder Pavel Durov says technology is supposed to set you free
Telegram was founded in 2013 by two Russian brothers, Nikolai and Pavel Durov.
Pavel Durov, CEO of Telegram, is known as “Russia’s Mark Zuckerberg”, for co-founding VKontakte, which means “in touch” in Russian, a Facebook impersonator that has become the country’s most popular social networking site.
In 2014, Pavel Durov fled the country after Kremlin allies seized control of the social networking site best known as VK. The Russian intelligence agency had asked Durov to hand over the data of anti-Kremlin protesters. Durov refused to do so.
“And it started a kind of battle royale for control of the platform that Durov ultimately lost,” said Nathalie Maréchal of the Washington Ranking Digital Rights advocacy group.
In a post on his Telegram channel recently recounting the episode, Durov wrote, “I lost my business and my home, but I would do it again – definitely.”
After fleeing Russia, the brothers founded Telegram as a way to communicate outside the Kremlin’s orbit. They now run it from Dubai, and Pavel Durov says it has over 500 million monthly active users.
In 2018, Russia banned Telegram although it reversed the ban two years later.
Steve Jennings/Getty Images
Pavel Durov, a billionaire who adopts an all-black wardrobe and is often compared to character Neo from “The Matrix”, funds Telegram through his personal wealth and debt financing. And despite being one of the most popular tech companies in the world, Telegram is said to have only about 30 employees who rely on Durov for most major decisions regarding the platform.
“He’s got a kind of old-school cyber-libertarian worldview where technology is there to set you free,” Marshal said.
Just days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Durov wrote that Telegram was “increasingly becoming a source of unverified information”, and he was concerned that the app was being used for ” incite ethnic hatred”.
He floated the idea of restricting the use of Telegram in Ukraine and Russia, a suggestion that was met with fierce opposition from users. Soon after, Durov gave up on the idea.
Some privacy experts say Telegram isn’t secure enough
Despite Telegram’s origins, its approach to user safety has privacy advocates worried.
Messages are not fully encrypted by default. This means that the company could, in theory, access the content of the messages or be compelled to hand over the data at the request of a government.
“There is a significant risk of an insider threat or hacking of Telegram systems that could expose all of these discussions to the Russian government,” said Eva Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who called on Telegram to improve its privacy practices.
Recently, Durav wrote on his Telegram channel that users’ right to privacy, in light of the war in Ukraine, is “sacred, now more than ever”.
Individual messages can be fully encrypted. But the user must enable this function. It’s not automatic, like it is on Signal and WhatsApp.
The gold standard of encryption, known as end-to-end encryption, where only the sender and the person receiving the message can see it, is only available on Telegram when the Secret Chat feature is enabled. Voice and video calls are also fully encrypted.
But since group chats and channel features are not end-to-end encrypted, Galperin said user privacy was potentially at risk.
“There are a lot of things Telegram could have done in all this time. And they know exactly what they are and they chose not to do them. That’s why I don’t trust them,” said- she declared.
But Telegram says people want to keep their chat history when they get a new phone, and they like having a data backup that will sync their chats across multiple devices. And that’s why they let people choose whether they want their messages encrypted or not. When not enabled, chats are stored on Telegram’s services, which are scattered around the world. But it has “disclosed 0 bytes of user data to third parties, including governments,” Telegram says on its website.
“Telegram’s argument is, ‘You should trust us because we tell you we are trustworthy,'” Marshal said. “It’s really in the eye of the beholder if it’s something you want to buy into.”
But Kliuchnikov, the Ukrainian currently in France, said he would use Signal or WhatsApp for sensitive conversations, but privacy issues on Telegram don’t let him hesitate when it comes to sharing information about the war. .
“As Ukrainians we believe that the truth is on our side, whether it’s the truth you proclaim about the war and everything else, why would you want to hide it?” he said.