US think tank The DFRLab is reporting that Russian pro-Kremlin Telegram channels have been able to increase their subscriber base substantially faster than neutral or critical channels that broadcast reliable information about the war in Ukraine. According to the article:
May 13, 2022 A study conducted by Megafon, one of largest mobile phone operators in Russia found that Telegram’s popularity in Russia started to grow rapidly following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the end of February. Their analysis suggested that Telegram’s share of total traffic by messaging apps reached 63 percent in the first two weeks of March, up from 48 percent in the first two weeks of February.
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A DFRLab analysis showed that 38 out of the 50 most viewed posts by the top 50 Russian Telegram news channels were published by accounts pushing pro-Kremlin messages. In contrast, only three posts from the same pool were published by neutral or tabloid Telegram channels. From 1 January 2022 until 13 April 2022, posts from pro-Kremlin channels garnered almost 60 million views and more than 4,450 forwards to other channels, while posts from neutral/tabloid channels garnered only less than four million views and around 150 shares during the same observation window. The DFRLab also examined the top 50 Telegram channels with the highest number of new subscribers in 2022 and found that 31 were pro-Kremlin, with a cumulative growth of over 12 million new subscribers.
Telegram is emerging as one of the more important influence vehicles relied upon by Russia in light of the shutdown of its state media operations in the West, having unique aspects that position it as a vehicle for successful disinformation. According to the New York Times, in 2018, the Russian government tried to ban Telegram after the company had defied government orders to allow Russian security services access to user data, but the government lacked the technical means to block access to the app. By 2020, the government lifted its ban, saying Telegram had agreed to several conditions. According to the NYT:
Rather than stifling Telegram, the Kremlin tries to control the narrative there, not just through its own channels but by paying for posts, said Mr. Shepelin, the media analyst. The number of subscribers to official or hard-line channels dwarfs the audience for opponents.
In March 2022, the Global Influence Operations Report (GIOR) reported that the DFRLab had identified a Russian Telegram channel purporting to be a fact-checking service but was, in reality, a significant source of disinformation on the Ukraine conflict. In May 2022, we reported that there had been a massive increase in pro-Russian propaganda being shared on German Telegram channels, some of which were able to amass more than 145,000 subscribers.