ShellyPalmer: THINK ABOUT THIS

As Russian troops surround Kyiv, millions of Ukrainians have relied on Telegram to receive government information. Why Telegram? There was an official Ukrainian COVID information Telegram channel @COVID19_Ukraine, and when war broke out, its members voted to have the channel refocus on real-time war news. The channel is now called @UkraineNOW.

While this is interesting, it is very important to understand that this “official” news channel is not a model for private citizens to follow. Unlike WhatsApp and Signal, Telegram is not end-to-end encrypted. (Telegram does offer end-to-end encryption with its “secret chats” feature.) This exposes private users (people organising their movements, for example) to significant security risks as unencrypted communications are relatively easy to monitor and insecure channels are susceptible to the injection of unauthorised content.

Every social media platform has been weaponized, but in a war zone, fake news can literally kill. Please post your thoughts and comments on our Discord server or on Twitter. -s

P.S. Speaking of social media channels, we’re moving PGX (our private social network) to Discord, and you are invited to join. You’ll find vibrant discussions about hot topics as well as deep dives into subjects like Web3, advertising and marketing, AI, media and entertainment and more.

When War Struck, Ukraine Turned to Telegram

As Russian troops surround Kyiv, millions of Ukrainians have relied on the messaging platform for government information.

Caption courtesy by Shelly Palmer

Every day for the past two years, thousands of Ukrainians opened the official Covid-19 Telegram channel for the latest pandemic news. The @COVID19_Ukraine account shared daily case figures, the number of people who had died, and the government’s latest health advice. Millions read the channel during the global health crisis.

But as Russian troops marched toward Ukraine’s borders, the channel responded. It asked whether members wanted updates on the latest “socio-political” news? People overwhelmingly voted for the change. Since then the Telegram channel has shared the latest war news 24 hours a day—changing its display name to @UkraineNOW—and become an essential source of verified information for Ukrainian citizens.

In the days since the war started, WIRED has reviewed hundreds of Telegram posts from verified Ukrainian government accounts and politicians. Their messages help keep people safe, debunk potential Russian disinformation, and counter emerging threats. Wartime propaganda is mixed with practical safety advice. Disinformation rebuttals are peppered among requests to spot Russian saboteurs. And alleged videos of captured Russians sit alongside photos of babies born in air raid shelters. All of this unfolds in real time, with accounts posting hundreds of messages per day.

“How to distinguish our equipment from the enemy?” UkraineNOW posted on Friday, sharing pictures of Ukrainian and Russian tanks. On Saturday, three separate posts in the space of just six minutes warned of imminent airstrikes across Ukraine (“air alarm: Lviv, Rivne ❗️❗️❗️”); maps showing air raid shelter locations were shared. On Sunday the channel advised on ways to safely pass military checkpoints (“turn on the hazard warning light, no video recording”) and what to do if there are attacks on chemical processing plants (“close the windows and do not open them unnecessarily”).

With nearly 500,000 members before Russia’s invasion, UkraineNOW was already one of the country’s biggest Telegram channels. Now a million people depend on it for updates about the war. Its posts, which are shared by other channels, get around 8 million views a day. On February 26, UkraineNOW posted 139 times and forwarded another 54 messages from other Telegram accounts; before the invasion it posted three to five times per day. Its evolution and continued growth provides a glimpse of how the social media app has helped keep citizens up to date on Russia’s invasion with verified information during a time when platforms have struggled to handle a flood of misinformation and disinformation.

“From bomb shelters, on the road, in different parts of the country, day and night we are working to ensure that Ukraine and the world receive truthful information and fight Russian propaganda,” one Ukrainian team member involved in the channel’s operation tells WIRED. They say the channel was quickly “transformed into a powerful information ecosystem” to keep people informed.

The original Covid-19 channel was set up by a Ukrainian technology agency, the Institute of Cognitive Modelling. The government quickly adopted it as the official Telegram pandemic service in March 2020. The agency still operates the channel, as well as an associated Viber account. “We work in conjunction with the government, we publish only verified information,” the person familiar with the channel’s operation says, adding there are “working groups” for fact checking posts. “If the information does not come from government agencies, we will definitely check it with several official sources in parallel before publishing it,” the person says. Those working on the channel do so on schedules, and there is a “hierarchy of approval” that posts need to go through before they go live.

While Ukrainian officials have effectively used Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, among others, to share war updates, boost morale, and draw international attention to Ukraine, the use of Telegram stands out. The app’s hybrid structure makes it a powerful tool for mass communications. Public or private channels, such as UkraineNOW, can have an unlimited number of members, while public and private groups allow up to 200,000 members. WhatsApp’s maximum group size is 256 members, while Signal groups top out at 1000 people.

UkraineNOW is not alone. Telegram channels across Ukraine—from news organizations, political commentators, and bloggers—have all grown in recent days, many of them through extensively posting about the war. Some of those growing the fastest, though, belong to official government channels. Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelenskyy; the mayor of Kyiv, former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko; and digital minister Mykhailo Fedorov all have large Telegram channels with hundreds of thousands of members. Zelenskyy’s channel had 65,000 subscribers on February 23; now it has more than 1.2 million, according to one Telegram analytics website. Government departments and the parliament, known as the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, have all shared hundreds of messages about the war.

As well as promoting official messaging, Ukraine’s government has also used Telegram to call for help from its citizens. Fedorov formed a government-backed “IT Army” of volunteer hackers using Telegram; more than 200000 people have signed up. People can send the government photos of suspicious symbols being left on roads and buildings—“such attacks by saboteurs can be everywhere”—and photos of Russian troops or military equipment through Telegram bots.

Fedorov has also used his Telegram channel to share letters addressed to the CEOs of Meta, Google, YouTube, Netflix, and Apple. He asked the companies to restrict their services in Russia and crack down on the spread of misinformation and disinformation. Many of them, including Apple, have complied to some extent.

While Telegram has become a vital tool for pro-democracy protests around the world, it has also hosted conspiracy theories and propaganda due to minimal content moderation. The Ukrainian government has warned of messages flooding social media trying to damage people’s morale, including accounts asking “how to get to Kyiv” and debunked claims that mobile and internet connectivity may be turned off. “Russian information terrorists broadcast a picture of an alternative reality,” the Ukrainian Center of Combating Disinformation posted on its Telegram channel.

“Since Russia invaded, many of the claims focus on portraying Ukrainian forces as weak or that they are in retreat, have been defeated, or that Russian forces are de-Nazifying Ukraine,” says Ciaran O’Connor, a disinformation analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. The Russian-state backed broadcaster RT and its editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan have prominent Telegram channels. “They aim to confuse and obfuscate the factual details of the conflict and attempt to sway public opinion towards Russia and Putin.”

Pavel Durov, Telegram’s Russian founder, rarely intervenes on the app’s controversies but has posted about the war. “Telegram channels are increasingly becoming a source of unverified information related to Ukrainian events,” Durov posted on Telegram on February 27. “We do not have the physical ability to check all channel publications for accuracy.” Durov considered “partially or completely restricting” Telegram in both Russia and Ukraine—although quickly backtracked after being told it was a key way people are communicating.

The widespread use of Telegram has provoked some security concerns; unlike WhatsApp and Signal, Telegram doesn’t use end-to-end encryption by default. It is only available in specific “secret chats.” Signal founder Moxie Marlinspike warned of the potential for snooping on Telegram on February 25. According to internet infrastructure firm Cloudflare, Signal has seen increased traffic in both Russia and Ukraine since the war started. On February 28, Signal traffic in the region passed Telegram for the first time during the conflict. But while the use of Signal has increased, Cloudflare’s data shows there’s been no drop in demand for Telegram, suggesting people are using it to keep up to date with the rapidly unfolding events.

That’s likely because the platform has proven effective when the Ukrainian government needs to publish official messaging to thousands of people at once. Millions of people in Ukraine already use Telegram, and the channel infrastructure is already in place to broadcast messages. “What counts is the ability to reach the population with key information,” says Lukasz Olejnik, an independent cybersecurity researcher and consultant who previously acted as a cyberwarfare adviser at the International Committee of the Red Cross.

There are still possible consequences for individuals using Telegram: People organizing their movements or who are involved in the conflict are more at risk if they don’t use encrypted conversations. “This is a big problem for the more active individuals like those being involved in civil defense, or insurgency, armed opposition,” Olejnik says. “Such people should better be trained in safe communication methods.” While the IT Army is coordinating its public orders on Telegram, for instance, the decisionmakers picking targets use encrypted messaging.

As Russian troops move closer to Kyiv and Vladimir Putin escalates his attacks, the UkraineNOW Telegram channel keeps publishing. The Institute of Cognitive Modeling has recruited more than 40 volunteers, on top of its usual staff, to help run the channel. It is also expanding its efforts. On February 27, the channel’s organizers created German, French, English, Italian, Spanish, and Polish language versions to make sure the world can read about Russia’s actions.

www.wired.com