How Russia is exploiting Telegram for war funding and news coverage

While lots of focus is on TikTok, I would argue that many of us are missing the influence and role played by the messaging network of Telegram. In this post, I explain why that could be a bigger threat to the online world.

Last fall, I wrote a post for SiliconAngle about how social media accounts are being used by pro-Russia misinformation groups. This was based on a report by Reset sponsored by the EU. One of the results from this report is that Telegram is very permissive in allowing hateful content and propaganda. A new report from¬† the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab last week takes a deeper dive into how Telegram has been a communications kingpin for Russia’s war, and how effective and pervasive it is. The social network is not only being used for misinformation purposes, but also to recruit mercenaries, fund their purchases of tactical equipment and medical supplies, and serve as primary sources for Russian TV war coverage. The council calls it a digital front and another battlefield in the Ukraine conflict.

What surprised me was the huge audience that Russian Telegram has: with an estimated 30M monthly active users, billions of views and its cozy relationship with various Russian state-sponsored traditional TV channels. There are even channels run by the NY Times and Washington Post that were created to get around website and other internet content blocks.

By now, most of us are familiar with the term “catch and kill” as it applies to media buying stories that are never intended to run. Pro-Russia Telegram channels are paid not to mention specific persons or companies.

My analysis for Avast’s blog about data privacy of various messaging networks from early 2021 shows that Telegram isn’t as anonymous as many people first thought. The council’s report confirms this, finding government crackdowns on supposedly anonymous Telegram channels that have real-world consequences of arrest and prison terms for those channels that take these anti-government positions. Even so, there are many Telegram channels that continue to be critical of government policies and operations, such as those supporting last summer’s failed Wagner mutiny.¬† “While Telegram positions itself as a censorship-free platform, the available evidence demonstrates how the service is not a completely safe place for critics of the war,” they wrote. Wagner’s head Yevgeny Prigozhin discovered this first hand and died after declaring his mutinous intentions initially on Telegram.

Some of Russia’s military bloggers offer occasional criticism of the war, which adds to their credibility and popularity. “Users see their efforts as trustworthy and balanced, especially when compared to state media resources,” the council’s report wrote. That is not only insidious but dangerous, especially as many posts are widely shared and get millions of views.

As I mentioned earlier, many of the Telegram accounts openly ask for donations, providing bank account numbers and crypto wallet addresses, mostly in Bitcoin and Tether (ironically, one that is tied to the US dollar). The funds collected have been significant, in the equivalent of millions of dollars. They are also used for recruiting fighters and coordinating hacktivism efforts such as DDoS’ing Ukrainian targets such as civilian infrastructure, government data centers and banks. Ironically, Telegram is also used to help Russians avoid the draft with all sorts of tips and strategies on how to emigrate out of the country.

The final irony is that Telegram was created by two Russian brothers to get around government censorship, and was blocked by the government for several years. The brothers now live in Dubai and the Russian government has decided to leverage the network to amplify its propaganda and complement its communications.

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