Despite concerns about data security and misinformation defenses, Telegram is Russia’s preferred social media tool.

picture of some social media app on a phone screen

Unlike some of the world’s largest social networks, chat services like WhatsApp and Telegram have evaded being blocked by Russia, in a fragile truce that experts fear might end abruptly.
After the invasion of Ukraine, years of animosity between Moscow and US-based Facebook and Twitter erupted into a battle, with the platforms targeting state-run media and subsequently being limited in Russia.

YouTube, which has blocked channels related to Russian official media around the world, was threatened with being shut again on Friday after Russia’s media regulator, Roskomnadzor, accused the site’s owner Google of being “anti-Russian.”
Messaging applications, on the other hand, have gotten a pass so far, in part because Meta’s WhatsApp isn’t designed for mass communication, whereas Telegram’s ability to send material to huge groups has made it valuable for both independent media and the Kremlin.

“I don’t think Russia will prohibit Telegram because they are so short on platforms where they can operate,” said Sergey Sanovich, a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University, who pointed out that officials tried to restrict the service in 2020 but were unsuccessful.
Telegram, which has been chastised for its loose content filtering policies, provides a platform for Russian officials to disseminate narratives supportive of their widely condemned conflict.
Despite Russia’s domestic censorship of social media platforms like Facebook, the Silicon Valley giant this week removed posts from Moscow’s pages that conveyed falsehoods about its deadly offensive.

The most popular platform in Russia.

After the Kremlin’s recent attack on independent media and the lock-out of applications like Facebook and Instagram, Telegram has become a crucial exchange for war news, with its growth growing.

In the last three weeks, Telegram added an average of 2.5 million new users each day, a 25% increase over the previous three weeks, according to the company.
Telegram has been downloaded over 150 million times since the beginning of the year, according to daily numbers published by the company, with an official total of half a billion active users dating back to January 2021.

Telegram has benefited from the reputation of its founders, Russian brothers Pavel and Nikolai Durov, who left their homeland in 2014.
Under duress from the authorities, Nikolai sold his stake in VK, the social media platform he founded, rather than hand over activists’ personal information to the government.
“Telegram is now a very wonderful revenge story, and we all love a good revenge story,” said Enrique Dans, a professor at the IE Business School in Madrid who specializes in information systems.
“Will that be enough to make Telegram the most popular chat app on the planet?” That’s a lot of information to convey. He went on to say that the software still has a lot to prove in terms of security, encryption, and economic strategy.

‘Declaring war on YouTube’

Experts, however, have identified a risk to Telegram and its users as a result of the lack of default, end-to-end encryption, which might expose the firm to government demand to hand over data.
WhatsApp has put in place firestops that offer insulation against that kind of demand, according to Alp Toker, director of online monitoring group NetBlocks.

“They have essentially safeguarded their own platform from legal danger and prospective demands for content access requests by upgrading their security and implementing end-to-end encryption technology,” Toker added.
For the time being, the fact that WhatsApp is used for one-on-one or group discussions makes it less of a target for Russian authorities, but that might change if it becomes known as a vital tool for anti-war protests.
“Primarily, Roskomnadzor has been really worried about channels and news and ways of delivering information to huge groups of people,” said Eva Galperin, head of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Toker, however, emphasized that the issue has not yet reached a critical point for authorities, in part because social media platforms, many of which have now been shut, played a crucial role in organizing.
“As those [platforms] fade away, the dynamics may shift, and messaging applications may become the next target,” he continued.
According to eMarketer estimates, WhatsApp was one of the most popular apps in Russia in 2021, with 67 million users, or roughly 65 percent of the country’s internet users – far ahead of TikTok, Russian social media platform VK, and even Telegram.
The findings showed that YouTube, with 76 million visitors in 2021, garnered more Russians than any of the other channels.

Its appeal stems in part from the fact that it provides amusement to ordinary Russians, who in turn provide an audience for politicians and government officials wanting their attention.
According to Sanovich, the Princeton researcher, the platform had simply gotten in trouble with regulators.
“They have a hard time censoring YouTube, and YouTube’s recent steps have rendered it less valuable as a platform for foreign propaganda,” he said.
The government’s decision on what to do with YouTube has been complicated by the lack of a suitably high-quality indigenous alternative.
Toker, the NetBlocks director, warned that blocking YouTube would put Google’s suite of services, including Gmail, at jeopardy.

He pointed out that “declaring war on YouTube effectively means declaring war on the rest of the firm.” “Google is a big corporate power and a vital link to the rest of the globe.”

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