Only one(1) global publishing platform remains: Telegram, a messaging app that has morphed into more of a broadcasting service, where an array of “channels” with millions of subscribers blast truth, as well as lies, about the Ukraine conflict. The app continues to run without any apparent interference from Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the likely reason will be infuriating for anyone who backs strict controls on misleading content: Telegram does absolutely nothing about fake news.
Telegram bans spam, scams, violence and porn in its terms of service, and does so pretty lightly; it has hundreds of content moderators compared with Facebook’s more than 15,000. But it has no rules at all against misinformation, meaning Telegram can remain a valuable channel for Putin to reach out to the app’s more than 50 million Russian users with whatever propaganda he likes. (Telegram says it has more than 500 million active users globally.)
Telegram’s moderators don’t touch popular, pro-Kremlin channels like that of TV news anchor Vladimir Solovyov or Chechen republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, who have twisted the truth about the war to millions of subscribers — just as Telegram left Covid misinformation and QAnon conspiracy theories to flourish on other channels on the app. The company’s approach has been to occasionally promote expert advice on things like vaccinations. “We believe that spreading verified information is far more important” than taking down or flagging misleading information, a spokesman said.
That stance adds to an already-controversial reputation for hosting extremism, and sets it apart from Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and YouTube, who all tend to label, down-rank or remove misleading posts. Facebook, part of Meta Platforms Inc., has closed entire networks of accounts that spread Russian disinformation, while ByteDance Ltd.’s TikTok labeled users connected to Russian state media. Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube banned a channel operated by Russia’s Ministry of Defense, a move that may have trigged YouTube’s forthcoming removal.
Telegram has done nothing like that. Founder Pavel Durov, 38, is a self-described libertarian with free-speech principles, cultivated from having grown up in the Soviet Union where censorship was the norm. Since around 2014, when the Kremlin seized control of a popular social network he founded, Durov has lived outside the country and is now based in Dubai. It is unclear exactly why the Kremlin has left Telegram alone, but its ability to use the app as its own megaphone with zero interference, and its struggle to ban the app in the past, likely has something to do with it.
“In my 20 years of managing discussion platforms, I noticed that conspiracy theories only strengthen each time their content is removed by moderators,” Durov said on his official channel last year. “Instead of putting an end to wrong ideas, censorship often makes it harder to fight them. That’s why spreading the truth will always be a more efficient strategy than engaging in censorship.”
Durov, who owns 100% of Telegram, has been flexible on his principles under certain legal pressure. For instance, the app complied with EU orders to ban Russian state broadcasters RT and Sputnik and agreed to previous Kremlin demands to remove some “extremist propaganda.”
But most government requests have gone ignored as part of proud tradition, including now the Kremlin’s “fake news” law that bans online platforms from hosting content that refers to Ukraine’s “invasion” or “war.”
That has left Durov walking a moral and practical tightrope. He knows that touching state propaganda on his app could provoke an outright ban in Russia, leaving the country’s citizens even further in the dark. And while Telegram has survived a Russian ban before (the Kremlin tried blocking the app in 2018 and its user numbers more than doubled) Putin could do something more radical to make a ban stick this time around, like blocking all foreign internet traffic in Russia.
Telegram’s users also could be more vulnerable to state surveillance at a time when Moscow is cracking down on dissent. Comments in Telegram groups and channels don’t have the same kind of strong encryption found in messaging apps like WhatsApp and Signal.
Still, if the Russian public can glean insights on Telegram that they otherwise wouldn’t get, that could help move the country in the direction of a popular backlash that potentially destabilizes Putin’s position, especially if meaningful opposition in Moscow is bubbling below the surface currently, or if, say, the Belarusian military is of two minds about sabotaging railway lines and needs a reason to step away.
As it turns out, anti-Kremlin channels on Telegram have swelled since the start of the war. Subscribers to independent news publications Novaya Gazetta and Meduza more than doubled to 1.2 million and half a million subscribers, respectively, on the app.
“Once the [independent] newspapers were closed, they switched to personal Telegram channels,” says Sergey, a doctor who fled Russia last month and asked not to use his last name. He follows channels like that of Alexei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of now-closed Echo of Moscow radio station, on Telegram. “It’s very convenient,” he adds.
Out of the 10 Telegram channels that have gained the most subscribers in the last month, six are independent media organizations or linked to people who publish critical views of the war, according to Telemetrio, a website that tracks channel statistics on Telegram. They include Varlamov News and Yury Dud, a popular Russian YouTuber who has openly condemned the Ukraine invasion. Dud’s followers on Telegram have doubled in the last month to 1.3 million, making his channel one of the fastest-growing on the app. Though pro-Kremlin names have millions of followers too, independent or opposition profiles appear to make up a majority of the biggest channels.
Telegram has also become one of the primary ways Ukrainians publish videos, photographs and graphic accounts of the war to the rest of the world; Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy posts daily updates and videos to his 1.5 million subscribers on the app.
“It’s the No. 1 source for on-the-ground information coming out of Ukraine in the combat zone,” says Kevin Rothrock, editor of the independent Russian news site Meduza. “If you’ve seen accounts of videos showing air strikes, most of those videos are being tracked on Telegram.”
Tackling misinformation on the internet is a good thing, and social media companies should do more to stop the spread of lies that hurt the democratic process. But the flood of encouraging activity on Telegram lays bare an uncomfortable reality in this conflict: A laissez-faire approach to lies is probably protecting a critical window to truth for Russians. For now, that is a price worth paying.
More From Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
They May Be Kids, But the Lapsus$ Hackers Are Giants: Tim Culpan
Beware an Isolated Russia’s ‘Splinternet: Parmy Olson
The Invasion Will Be TikTokked: Stephen L. Carter
(1) WhatsApp is still available in Russia and widely used, but is more like a messenger for chatting between individuals or groups, not a broadcaster. WhatsApp limits group numbers on the app to 256 people, and also has strict limits on forwarding messages, an effort to slow the spread of fake news.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. She previously reported for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes and is the author of “We Are Anonymous.”