Daily Newsletter

28 March 2024

Daily Newsletter

28 March 2024

Messaging, social, news, intel: why do 900 million people use Telegram?

Telegram was launched in 2013 as a privacy-focused messaging service and has since found popularity in conflict zones.

Kris Cooper March 21 2024

Following the news last week that Telegram has hit 900 million users, it was revealed this week that the privacy-focused messaging service has also raised $330m in bond sales.

The figures are notable, not least because the app is still viewed by many as playing second fiddle to other messaging services. On the contrary, though, its user base now ranks above those of both Meta’s Facebook Messenger and privacy-focused competitor Signal, although it remains some way off WhatsApp’s 1.8 billion users.

Telegram was launched in 2013 by brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov, who had previously launched the Russian social media platform VKontakte (VK). Pavel Durov, who is the younger of the two and serves as Telegram’s CEO, has been vocal in advocating for privacy over the years and has baulked at suggestions that app data might have been provided to the brothers’ home country.

While the primary focus of Telegram has always been secure messaging, though, it is perhaps the Durovs’ background with VK that explains why the service has been developed over the years to incorporate social media features and to even become a tool for use on the front lines of conflicts around the world.

Telegram’s features

Fundamentally, like other messaging apps, Telegram offers one-to-one chats, group chats, support for sending media and even tools like the ability to send ephemeral messages (those that disappear after a given time).

However, through support for much larger group messaging and its early adoption of channels for broadcasting, Telegram is more effectively more ‘social’ and more suited for use more publicly. It allows for messaging among groups of up to 200,000 compared to just over 1,000 by WhatsApp, and it also has large file-sharing capabilities of up to 2GB. The channels function allows users to broadcast messages to large audiences, with no limit on the number of subscribers.

These features mean users can share videos, pictures and documents with large numbers of people at once, making Telegram a valuable potential line of information or disinformation.

A key feature of the app is its ‘secret chat’ function. Users can only access these from the sending or receiving devices. Another privacy measure is the support of proxy servers, allowing users to hide their IP addresses and phone numbers for less traceability.

Emma Mohr-McClune chief analyst and practice lead for telecoms within the tech division of GlobalData explains of Telegram’s features: Like most instant messaging platforms, Telegram uses end-to-end encryption for all messages, but it has put some further guardrails around its secret chats. They are on-device for one, which means they are – according to Telegram – never stored in the cloud. Secondly, secret chats cannot be forwarded to third parties – that feature is not so uncommon these days – and, lastly, secret chats ‘self-destruct’, meaning they auto-erase themselves after a certain period of time.”

Mohr-McClune highlights that one criticism of the platform “is that Telegram secret chats can only be implemented for one-on-one chats, not groups. And since a big issue with data privacy revolves around securing the privacy of chat content shared in a group context, that’s quite a drawback.”

The public image around Telegram is divided, whilst some view it as facilitating trades of arms and other illegal paraphernalia, others use it merely as a messaging platform as you would WhatsApp.

Use in war zones

The various features offered by Telegram have made it a popular service for use during conflicts. It has become a useful tool for the dissemination of information surrounding combat narratives, with even Ukrainian President Zelensky using it to put out messages to civilians via an official Telegram channel.

GlobalData defence analyst Tristan Sauer explains: “The rising prominence of Telegram in conflict zones is illustrative of a broader trend whereby social media platforms are leveraged by both state and non-state actors as critical enablers for psychological warfare operations. Telegram and similar social media platforms provide the means to disseminate information, both true and false, which helps opposing factions shape public narratives for various strategic purposes.”

A recent report from GlobalData stated that Telegram has “proven vital for the flow of information surrounding the Russia-Ukraine war” as it “allowed for the documentation of war crimes because of its reduced oversight”.

Sauer comments: “Telegram has proven particularly popular throughout the conflict in Ukraine due to it being well established within the Eastern European market, thus allowing both Ukraine and Russia to target regional audiences, and because Telegram is less restrictive of violent content than other competing social media platforms.”

Telegram’s lack of restrictions around content, aside from pornography, has meant that often explicitly violent images and videos are circulating and easily accessible, facilitating some militarist or alleged terrorist groups to galvanise a following or incite violence off the back of this.

Defence analyst Wilson Jones notes that the platform has become popular with “hate groups, extremists, and military around the world … including ISIS, the IRGC, Russian mil bloggers, separatist militias and Neo Nazi cells.”

Sauer adds: “Users have leveraged Telegram to document events on the ground, providing key insights for open-source intelligence analysis and potentially valuable evidence of criminal offences.”

“Other users seek to influence morale and socio-political stability amongst adversaries by disseminating controversial information or engaging in disinformation campaigns, the latter of which has played a major role in Russian psychological warfare operations since prior to their annexation of Crimea in 2014.”

The platform has also been used to document events on the ground and provide insights for open-source intelligence analysis and even evidence of criminal offences.

“Telegram has allowed Russia and Ukraine to undermine each other’s credibility when either of them seeks to obfuscate facts for political motives,” explains Sauer. “The Russians seek to foster divisions within Ukrainian society and amongst its Western allies, while Ukrainian and Western efforts seek to sustain morale and political alliances while countering Russian disinformation narratives and fostering political opposition to the war within Russia.”

Two recent examples of Telegram’s use in shaping news Russia-Ukraine narrative include Leonid Volkov, a long-term aid of Alexei Navalny, sharing details of his attack on Telegram and anti-Kremlin Russian fighters sharing a cross-border attack they carried out between Russia and Ukraine on their channel, which was then picked up by media outlets such as Reuters.

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