Telegram: Doing Well Amid Russia's Media Crackdown

By: Elizabeth Kershteyn  |  April 6, 2022

By Elizabeth Kershteyn, Staff Writer

Telegram, a messenger app created by Russian billionaire Pavel Durov, has been getting a lot of attention from the media lately. The app has managed to avoid major anti-media crackdowns and bans from the Russian government, unlike Facebook and Instagram which have been both restricted and banned. It has also been playing a crucial role in the Russia-Ukraine war. 

According to Time magazine, “Wars have unfolded on social media before, but rarely have they been so meticulously documented as in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And Telegram has emerged as its most important social-media platform, offering the world an unfiltered view of the war.” Since the beginning of war millions of Ukrainians have relied on Telegram to find information about the ongoing battlefield locations, information about shelters, humanitarian aid, and possible routes to leave the country. ‘UkraineNow’ is one of multiple channels that sends out real time updates on air strikes and alerts Ukrainians as to when to seek shelter. It currently has 1.19 million subscribers and claims to be “the main verified source of official information about the current news in Ukraine.” The channel posts daily updates from Ukraine’s government, relevant news, updates on humanitarian aid and available statistics and general information regarding the ongoing war. Even though the situation in Ukraine is critical considering the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe, the authors of UkraineNow make sure to keep the spirit of their readers high and try to cheer them up with occasional memes or good news.  

Telegram has become the battlefield of the information war. President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has been using his Telegram channel to post updates on Ukraine’s anti-war efforts and rally international support. However, Durov has been increasingly concerned about calls to violence and alleged fake information that may have been spreading through Telegram, there were even talks of him shutting down the app altogether. He later changed his mind following immediate public outcry, but asked to “double-check and do not take on faith the data that is published in Telegram channels during this difficult period”.  

What makes Telegram so unique? Telegram claims to be more secure than other messengers such as WhatsApp, and relies on features such as “secret chat,” which enables the end-to-end encryption between two users, and a “self-destruct” timer, which deletes the chat forever. The data is only stored on sender’s and receiver’s device. After the chat has been deleted, not even Telegram can access it.  

In addition, Telegram provides the user with more anonymity when sharing information. Telegram claims that its unique feature makes it impossible to trace a forwarded message back to its sender. Pavel Durov has also made it clear that he values the privacy of the users: “We’ve no issue with formalities, but not a single byte of private data will ever be shared with any government.”

Telegram has also been doing quite well in Russia despite previous scandals and threats from the Russian government to ban the service. According to Reuters, Megafon, one of Russia’s biggest telecoms operators, has analyzed mobile internet traffic and showed that “Telegram’s share had jumped to 63% in the first two weeks of March from 48% in the first two weeks of February.” 

Telegram is currently a free app, but with such rising popularity many have wondered how the app is going to sustain itself. Pavel Durov has assured users in his Telegram post that he is not planning to sell the company but will begin to generate revenue in the forthcoming years. He also promised that all features that are currently free will stay free forever, but the company is thinking about introducing a premium user accounts feature to meet the demands of a growing company. 

Telegram is currently, without a doubt, one of the leading messenger apps. With the rising concerns of tech companies selling their users data, will Telegram emerge as a safe haven against authoritarian governments and speech censorship? Only time will tell.