Telegram was created in 2013 by Pavel Durov, a Russian tech entrepreneur who has, to a large extent, managed to withstand pressure from Russian authorities and keep Telegram free and clear of oversight. This remains the key to Telegram’s power today: it’s a viable communications alternative to social platforms that are regulating or censoring content, succumbing to external pressure, and deplatforming users at their own discretion.
Over the past decade, every major social cataclysm has been linked to a social network. Facebook groups helped to organize the 2011-12 Bolotnaya Square protests in Russia against election rigging. The Arab Spring was powered by Twitter (more grim examples are also available).
In 2020, Telegram enabled Belarusian citizens to organize—first to replace the government’s disastrous COVID-19 response with solidarity networks, then to protest against a rigged presidential election, and finally to maintain access to news amidst a brutal crackdown on the opposition movement.
And now, in Russia’s war against Ukraine, Telegram continues to be the go-to method of communication between Ukrainians and Russian alike, at home and in the diaspora, as well as for numerous other interested parties, including journalists, global citizens, international organizations, and anybody else looking for related information.
How Russians rely on Telegram
Telegram has a much larger footprint in Russia than Twitter or Facebook. According to a 2021 Deloitte study, 61% of polled Russians have Telegram installed on their phones. As the Russian authorities are blocking independent media across the country and plan to make it a felony to question the government’s official account on the war, Telegram can play another important role: maintaining access for Russian citizens to first-hand news and footage from Ukraine, thereby challenging government propaganda and galvanizing anti-war sentiments, which are dampened by the state’s heavy repression apparatus and people’s general unawareness of the situation, but which are definitely present.
Apart from providing access to eyewitness accounts from the war, Russian citizens sharing content about the economic costs of sanctions—bank runs, rapid inflation, product shortages, which are already gripping Russia—can help to amplify the psychological effect and build an anti-war constituency in society.