How Telegram became central to the Ukrainian war effort

Within just one day, between February 23 and February 24 (when the invasion began), the number of followers in Telegram news channels spiked by about 3 million among both Russians and Ukrainians.

The Telegram logo is seen on a screen of a smartphone in this picture illustration (photo credit: ILYA NAYMUCHIN)
The Telegram logo is seen on a screen of a smartphone in this picture illustration
(photo credit: ILYA NAYMUCHIN)

While Ukrainian soldiers are battling on a number of Russian invasion fronts, the Telegram messaging app has become one of the main fronts in the information war.

Indicate Impact and Strategy, a global research group that specializes in social media analysis, has been closely monitoring Telegram channels during the war with many turning to the platform as mainstream news sites and social media become defunct or inaccessible in the region.

The research group focused on channels exceeding 80,000 followers, with the total number of followers in the channels observed reaching nearly 25 million.

Ivan Goncharenko, the VP of Research at Indicate, stressed that the invasion of Ukraine is providing one of the first major examples of social media in modern day conflicts, with Telegram proving a valuable tool for Ukraine to raise morale and inform citizens.

“This is the first Telegram war, the first time we’re seeing social media taking part in a war as big as this between two nations,” said the researcher.

Goncharenko added that decision makers need to take the “social media battlefield” very seriously, especially when it comes to Telegram.

The Telegram messaging app was already very popular in Russia and Ukraine before the war, with 86% of Russians using the app on a daily basis and 60% of Ukrainians doing the same.

Once the invasion began that already high number spiked, likely due to Russia’s crackdown on news sites and other social media platforms and infrastructure damage impacting news reporting in Ukraine.

It is also very easy to create bots which can both share and receive information on Telegram, making it an ideal tool for Ukrainian authorities to use as part of the war effort.

The founders of Telegram, brothers Pavel and Nikolai Durov, are Russian. Pavel fled the country in 2014 after the government attempted to pressure him into releasing data about Ukrainian protest leaders from VK, another social media platform he and his brother helped develop.

Within just one day, between February 23 and February 24 (when the invasion began), the number of followers in Telegram news channels spiked by about 3 million among both Russians and Ukrainians.

One reason many people in Ukraine and Russia use Telegram is because it is seen by many as more secure than other platforms, even though this is not necessarily correct. Russia has tried in the past to force Telegram to share data or block certain channels, but Telegram has refused to do so.

The Indicate team observed that Telegram was used by Ukraine for five main issues amid the war: transmitting official guidelines to citizens, providing information on enemy forces, psychological warfare, thwarting Russian psychological warfare and creating a sense of control and activity from the government and military.

As a war zone is a rapidly changing environment, Telegram has helped the military and officials provide instructions and information to citizens, many of whom have become a form of guerrilla force.

For example, instructions on how to make Molotov cocktails and how best to hit a tank and even how to drive a tank have been transmitted to civilians over Telegram.

Another example is how, when villagers started reporting Russian soldiers had run out of diesel and were trying to buy more from locals, the military issued instructions over Telegram advising villagers to put sand in the diesel before selling it, in order to ruin tanks.

Villagers also use Telegram to inform the military on the location of Russian troops they see, allowing the military to prepare with better intelligence from the field and warn nearby areas through Telegram and other platforms.

Examples include villagers warning through a government Telegram bot that Russian tankers were disguising themselves as regular trucks and messages from Ukrainian officials advising civilians on how to tell the difference between Ukrainian and Russian military equipment.

Telegram in general has been used by Ukrainian officials to raise morale and convey information.

For example, a Telegram channel is used by Ukrainian officials to share photos of captured and killed Russian soldiers, raising morale in Ukraine and attempting to lower morale in Russia. Telegram is also being used to advise Ukrainians on how to contact Russian citizens and inform them about Russian losses in the war.

Russia also uses Telegram to conduct psychological warfare in Russian (as many Ukrainians speak Russian), such as claims Russian forces have conquered certain cities, prompting Ukrainian officials to work to expose Russian misinformation and demoralization attempts and warn citizens about such attempts over Telegram.

Regular municipal, regional and national updates are also being moved to Telegram as other communication channels become unreliable or difficult to access. Curfew announcements, electricity updates and daily status updates on the war are posted on official Telegram channels by local, regional and national authorities.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky regularly uses Telegram, with Ukrainian media almost daily sharing video updates he posts to his Telegram channel. Mayors and other more local officials have similar channels as well.

Goncharenko believes “the cohesion, progress and resistance of the Ukrainian people in the face of the invasion are [the] result of the effective management of [a] social media war.”

The researcher theorized that even if Ukrainian tanks had won all the battles outside of the cities, but Ukrainian citizens in the cities had not been kept informed and heartened over Telegram by the authorities, “national resistance would have failed in the first days of the war.”

“This is only the small part of Ukraine’s civilian cyber war against Russia in this war, but even the tip of the iceberg proves that armies in the 21st century must take civilian cyber abilities seriously, the same as the number of tanks and aircraft,” added Goncharenko.

“In a world of information overflow, truth and deception constantly compete for our attention,” said Ben Avrahami, CEO and co-founder of Indicate.

“At Indicate we leverage multilayered technologies to monitor, diagnose and evaluate complex situations worldwide, and create valuable and trusted insights. We believe that informed and effective decisions should be made through deep understanding and analysis of online public discourse.”

Indicate provides open-source research and strategic consulting for decision-makers in both the public and private sectors.

The group’s analysts perform deep research on various social media platforms using cutting-edge proprietary tools for data aggregation and analysis.