Messaging service Telegram’s marketing strategy is to present itself as a platform for total freedom of speech in response to the moderation policies of other platforms like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Telegram professes to consider content moderation as a philosophical question of ethics and morale, as if any interference has the exclusive function of “disciplining” users. However, this philosophical issue has quite tangible consequences in practice. For example, the findings of an independent impact assessment of Facebook on human rights in Myanmar showed(opens in a new tab) that under-moderation of content in Myanmar language contributed(opens in a new tab) to the act of genocide against the Rohingya Muslims.

Before the full-scale invasion, Russia already deliberately used Telegram(opens in a new tab) to penetrate the Ukrainian information space. Telegram became one of the alternatives to spread pro-Kremlin narratives when Russian social media networks VKontakte and Odnoklassniki, as well as the television channels owned by the pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk were blocked(opens in a new tab), in order to restrict Russia’s information warfare in Ukraine. With the start of the full-scale phase of the Russian-Ukrainian war, the importance of Telegram for the Russian propaganda machine has increased further.

In the temporarily occupied territories (TOTs) of Ukraine, Russia’s information strategy is to restrict and block anything they can – from TV signal to websites – and to quickly provide a Kremlin-controlled replacement as the only source of information. OPORA’s study of the information space in the temporarily occupied territories showed(opens in a new tab) that for the technical implementation of censorship, Russians use the seized offices and equipment of Ukrainian mobile operators and Internet providers. Some providers have been forced into connecting the Russian networks, while the traffic of others is being re-routed. At least 46 Ukrainian Internet providers had to terminate their services in the TOTs. Instead, 11 “grey” providers came to replace and broadcast on the occupied territories. At the same time, the connection to main Ukrainian mobile networks cannot be totally jammed, despite persistent attempts.

The most popular social media and messengers, such as Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Viber, have also been blocked. The Russian social network VKontakte has become the only available replacement, and the Telegram messenger is the only large platform outside the formal jurisdiction of the Russian Federation (as it is registered in the British Virgin Islands and allegedly headquartered in the United Arab Emirates), that has not been blocked in the temporarily occupied territories. Potential links between Telegram and the Russian authorities are another subject for discussion(opens in a new tab) since the company’s founder is Russian-born Pavel Durov, the former owner of the Russian social network VKontakte.

Durov himself has stated multiple times that he had to sell VKontakte due to pressure from Russian law enforcement, demanding access to user data. According to Durov, this is the reason for his emigration abroad and creating another platform, free from Russian government censorship. However, due to a lack of openness and transparency, questions about Telegram’s security and the reliability of the company’s “honor system” remain unanswered.

Adding to controversy is the fact that back in 2018 the Kremlin had tried and failed to block Telegram, but since then the messaging service seems to have been fully embraced by the Kremlin’s propagandists, such as Solovyev, Simonian, Medvedev, and others.

The first time that OPORA noticed the use of Telegram for spreading pro-Kremlin narratives on TOTs was when Russia was preparing(opens in a new tab) the pseudo-referendum on annexing the temporarily occupied territories. 127 local pro-Russian Telegram channels, designed specifically for occupied cities, towns, and villages joined the campaign. Those were channels of local collaborators, occupation administrations and so called “ministries”, media controlled by the Russian authorities, etc.

At that time, OPORA noticed a trend: Russians do not try to create unique content for different places or even regions, despite any differences between these regions. Only in about one third of cases were the messages in these channels unique. In most other cases, propagandistic messages were identical in different Telegram channels and were posted almost simultaneously. Propagandists tried to convince their subscribers that Russia would “take care” of the occupied territories. They spread content about the education system, health care and law enforcement in Russia, teaching the audience how to navigate welfare system and properly obey Russian law once Russia absorbs this territory. They also discredited Ukrainian authorities and promoted messages alleging that TOT residents want to join the Russian Federation and are looking forward to the pseudo-referendum. Therefore, using Telegram helped Russia to create an illusion of a “democratic nature” of the rigged referendum.

The activities of occupation channels were not limited to major news, such as the pseudo-referendum. While Telegram is being portrayed as an alternative beyond the reach of Russian censorship, there are in fact systematic efforts to use it to spread pro-Kremlin narratives in the temporarily occupied territories. OPORA managed to identify(opens in a new tab) 640 local pro-Russian Telegram channels for different settlements in the temporarily occupied parts of Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Donetsk, and Luhansk regions, as well as other settlements sought but failed to occupy. There are even channels for the territories now liberated by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, which are still active, despite their lack of relevance.

The information infrastructure of the occupiers on Telegram includes five elements. Number one is about local media that came to “replace” Ukrainian local media covering the everyday life of those towns and villages. The second element is the channels of local occupation administrations, local departments of ‘ministries’, of law enforcement, and other administrative ‘authorities’. Element three – pages of various charity or volunteer organizations, organizations for “patriotic” education, trade unions, etc. Element four – pages of public personalities, such as local collaborators, “war correspondents” and other reporters. And the final category, number five – pages for exchange, sale of goods and services, or for job search.

Typical content of these Telegram channels is rather similar to the messages shared during the propaganda campaign for the pseudo-referenda. The administrators continuously inform users about the social benefits available for TOT residents and explain how to access them. Moreover, there are regular “educational” posts about Russian and Soviet culture and history. However, contemporary Russian culture is rarely mentioned. Instead, these channels often reminisce about the good-old Soviet times in those regions, or about Russian authors and other cultural figures. They also report on various educational and cultural events held in occupied cities and villages, such as art exhibitions, history lectures, and “patriotic education” events for young people.

There is often an emphasis on different events aimed at integration of the occupied Ukrainian territories with Russia. For example, they write about charity support from Russian local governments and residents of Russian cities or exchange programs for various professions. They report about how they will rebuild Ukrainian cities, masking the fact that Russian forces inflicted the destruction in the first place. Special focus is made on discrediting Ukraine and Ukrainian authorities, mostly replicating classic Russian propaganda narratives about the “Nazis” in the Ukrainian government.

Another frequent topic in the occupation Telegram channels is the combat of alcohol, drugs, “counterfeited goods” and “Ukrainian weapon stashes”. It is the only constant narrative about law enforcement. The occupiers regularly inform the discovery of yet another perpetrator producing counterfeited alcohol or selling smuggled alcohol or drugs. This narrative is also used to discredit pro-Ukrainian locals as the messages often present perpetrators as “Ukrainian Awaiters” (derogatory term, used by Russians to describe possible ‘traitors’ of Russian army and local people, who are waiting for Ukrainian ‘nazi’ authorities to come back, refers to a popular meme(opens in a new tab)), “fire adjusters” (Ukrainians living under occupation and discretely cooperating with the Ukrainian Armed Forces, portrayed by Russians as aiming to increase civilian casualties), ATO veterans, etc.

Telegram is especially proud of not cooperating with any governments. They even included that point in the FAQs(opens in a new tab) about the company, saying Telegram ‘won’t be a part of politically motivated censorship’. However, by labeling any moderation as censorship, Telegram has enabled Russian propaganda and disinformation in the Ukrainian territories temporarily occupied by Russia. Telegram became a key platform, used by the occupiers to communicate with the Ukrainian population, reinforcing the capacity of Russian disinformation to reach target audiences in Ukraine and beyond.

Guest content for EUvsDesinfo