The war in Ukraine has featured a number of extraordinary personal statements, from the powerful appeals of President Volodymyr Zelensky to spontaneous sing-a-longs in Kyiv metro stations doubling as bomb shelters.
There’s a source of information that is critical for many people in the region, but poorly understood outside. That’s Telegram.
This is our primer on Telegram, what makes it different as a source of information and what its use in Ukraine can teach us about the future of newsgathering and reporting.
A brief history of Telegram: Privacy finds fans in digital assets and Russia
Telegram emerged in 2013, a period when the general public were increasingly concerned of the reach and consequences of data sharing with major technology firms. WhatsApp attracted millions with free, encrypted communications, while others experimented with search engines such as DuckDuckGo that promised not to hoover up personal information.
Telegram promised to collect no information on users and offer additional privacy features compared to other social networks. Today this includes the ability to send disappearing messages and private encrypted chats.
Telegram’s biggest supporters today are in Russia and the blockchain and crypto community. In crypto the biggest channels such as Coin Telegraph and Lucky Block have thousands of subscribers and are seen as essential sources of information. New coin offerings and startups frequently communicate updates and look to build vibrant Telegram channels. Far too many of these wind up being ghost towns full of advertising bots and honeypots. The lack of a strong editorial eye is quite noticeable.
No region embraced Telegram more than Russia. The country tried to ban it five years ago, but it failed.
To illustrate the different ways that Telegram is being used now, we – the two authors of this article, one a long time worker on crypto, another from the region – thought it would be useful to reflect a bit on our time on the app. From there we offer some perspective on what exactly it means for both reading news and storytelling.
A Russian-speaking Kazakh perspective: Dina from Cognito’s Amsterdam office
People in the post-Soviet world – Russia, Ukraine, the Central Asian republics and the Baltics – were early adopters of Telegram. We’ve watched the app develop considerably since its introduction – one estimate from the government’s official statistics agency suggested there were 40 million users in Russia alone.
I installed Telegram in 2017 when I lived in Kazakhstan with my family. We started using the app to transfer media files in high resolution as Telegram files could be wirelessly transmitted. Other messaging apps required a cable.
The platform became popular among influencers as Telegram gives you an option of creating your own “channel” to read the latest news or opinion blogs with the use of engaging polls, stickers and video files. It later became popular to mute a particular channel or open it as your default channel.
Companies and media sources followed which further boosted the growth of the app. I could receive government documents from my home municipality of Almaty, Kazakhstan via the digital government bot installed on Telegram when I moved to the Netherlands.
People in post-soviet countries are using Telegram as a back-up or default messenger en masse due to protests such as the actions in Kazakhstan this January. While authoritarian governments blocked news and social networks, it remained relatively easy to access Telegram through a VPN.
For many, using Telegram is no longer a choice – it is now needed to communicate with the rest of the world.
A Transatlantic perspective: Jon from Cognito’s London office
Telegram came to America largely as a tool synonymous with cryptocurrency.
I installed Telegram in the crypto boom of 2017 to see what the fuss was about. I was unimpressed and found that websites and Twitter were much easier to navigate – Telegram felt like a deluge of material across a variety of individual channels that were constantly pinging alerts.
I never removed Telegram from my phone. And in the intervening years, my Russian crept into the intermediate range after many, many lessons. I started reading the Russian independent media, especially the excellent Meduza and financial paper (now under new ownership) Vedomosti.
I also followed Russian bloggers on Instagram and Youtube. As my exposure to the media and social sphere increased, so did the amount of times I would see things sourced based on Telegram information. It was clear that Telegram represented a way some people were getting important material – and one that felt hard to reconcile with my typical ways of absorbing news.
How Telegram is being used during the war
Then came the Russo-Ukrainian war. So many things changed quickly in the face of invasion and tragedy. A series of strict laws were passed on deviating from the official Russian government position on the war. Russia’s independent news outlets were hounded out of the country. And most importantly there was suddenly an urgent demand and need for information about what was happening.
Telegram channels profilerated – some from established news names looking for a new platform, others set up specifically on the war. Here the confirmed, the unconfirmed, and the definitely not true sometimes mingle in one place. The exact origin of the material can be murky, and the subject of a lively debate through emoji reactions and comments below the posts.
But there’s a reason why these channels are popular – they frequently break stories, from the downing of Russian equipment to evidence of war crimes. They provide a window on the ground far wider than can be done by a single war correspondent or people writing from hundreds of miles away. It’s also a way for Russians to see and share information in an increasingly isolated space; one of a shrinking number of ways to communicate and hear directly from Russians.
What does this say about how people use communications
Western media organizations are taking notice. The New York Times last month announced its own Telegram channel, specifically for war coverage.
The channel has attracted 43,000 subscribers – a drop in the bucket compared to the papers millions of subscribers – but a sizeable audience. The content so closely mirrors the paper’s live blog, with mini stories and links. It is an important access point for curious English-speakers caught in the Kremlin’s filter bubble, yet breaks no new ground.
Bloomberg moved its ‘dark social’ – networks focused more on privacy than mass communications – efforts from WhatsApp to Telegram in 2020 after WhatsApp banned distributing mass messages. The company said in a Digiday article at the time that Telegram was a place to meet readers “there and create a more direct relationship by sending daily conversational messages that were written by our editors and not an algorithm.”
For news outlets and companies who don’t take the leap – there’s a risk. Major news outlets pop up on Telegram accounts as bots that auto generate stories or headlines that are published elsewhere. Major companies can be taken by random squatters who either hold on to the name or use it for nefarious purposes.
The real opportunity is for new and legacy outlets to embrace the opportunity for shorter reporting in a place where the focus can be real time feedback. It can split the difference between Twitter with its focus on short form and the immediate and individual news sites that can feature longer reporting. It’s also a place where there’s a commonality between the presentation of one person organizations and global media brands. Individuals can also build followings that translate elsewhere.
We don’t have all of the answers yet for exactly Telegram will be used in news reporting – but it definitely is expanding beyond a small crypto space towards a larger audience. The best way to see exactly what is happening is to download the application, join a few channels and see where the discussion is all about. See if there is anyone there sitting on your company’s name. Then consider sending a message and joining the conversation.
Jon Schubin is a director in London. Dina Akhmetova is an account manager in Amsterdam.