On Monday, in an 11-minute speech, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the convicted criminal who leads the Wagner mercenary group, reflected on his brief revolt against the Russian government. It was the capstone to a tense and confusing geopolitical crisis—and it took the form of a voice memo on the popular app Telegram, where it was subject to a form of instant feedback. Reviews have been mixed: 155,600 fire emoji to 131,900 clown emoji.
For close followers of the ongoing conflict in Russia and Ukraine, it’s not unusual to see playful reaction emoji sitting just beneath pictures, videos, and text documenting the horrors of war in real time. Since Russia’s invasion, one of the quickest ways to follow the chaos on the ground has been to download Telegram and wade through live updates from citizens, soldiers, and the government—a digital morass of confusing, contradictory information. Just weeks into the Ukraine war, Time proclaimed that the decade-old app was “the digital battle space,” a moniker that held up over the weekend as onlookers used Telegram to try to suss out whether Russia was heading into civil war.
“The RU/UA war is 99% Telegram,” Aric Toler, an investigative journalist for Bellingcat, which has reported extensively on the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, told me this week over direct message. “Prigozhin broadcasted, organized, and orchestrated this all from the platform.” The app and individual channels within it—Prigozhin’s has grown to 1.3 million followers since it launched last November—are effectively feeders for the rest of the internet, according to Toler, who monitors, verifies, and reports on Russian and Ukrainian Telegram channels: “Almost every bit of information about the war on Twitter, [Instagram, Facebook, and others] is downstream of Telegram.” Many popular accounts on these social platforms merely repackage what they see on Telegram, often using unreliable programs to translate the channels.
Though public download numbers indicate that it has fewer users than chat platforms such as WhatsApp—700 million versus 2 billion every month—Telegram is the communications platform of choice for many activists, crypto scammers, drug dealers, terrorists, extremists, banned influencers, and conspiracy theorists. Because the app is free to download, lightweight, and marketed as privacy-forward and anti-censorship, it attracts people looking to fly under the radar. It’s a theater of war, a clandestine marketplace, and a safe haven for the deplatformed to build their alternative realities, which makes Telegram an excellent fit for the turbulence of the 2020s and perhaps the most important app in the world today.
The brainchild of brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov, Telegram shares the techno-libertarian sensibilities of its creators, especially its CEO, Pavel. The brothers, who founded a popular Russian social network, VKontakte, launched Telegram around the time Kremlin allies took over the platform. Pavel Durov told The New York Times in 2014 that Telegram was conceived out of a desire to have a free and secure communications platform out of the hands of the Russian state. Since its inception, Durov, known for his nomadic lifestyle and for posting cryptic philosophical messages and shirtless pictures of himself on Instagram, has positioned Telegram as a staunch anti-surveillance tool and rebuffed critics who have argued that the platform offers organization and communication abilities to dangerous groups.
“Our right for privacy is more important than our fear of bad things happening, like terrorism,” he told a crowd at TechCrunch Disrupt in 2015, arguing that ISIS, which used Telegram to claim responsibility for or plan numerous attacks in Europe, “will always find [another] way to communicate.” Durov has touted Telegram’s capacity to act as a form of digital resistance and has publicly fought Russian efforts to view encrypted messages on the platform. And the app has indeed been crucial in nations such as Belarus, where it was used for 2020 election protests, and in China last year during the COVID-lockdown demonstrations.
It’s not just that Telegram offers end-to-end encryption, a feature that shields messages from any outside party that would seek to access them, and one that many tech companies, including Apple and Meta, support. The app’s leadership also takes a pointedly hands-off approach to content moderation even for public-facing content, aside from illegal pornography and explicit “public calls to violence.” Far-right influencers such as Milo Yiannopoulos and neo-Nazi sympathizers such as Nick Fuentes have kept posting on Telegram even after being deplatformed elsewhere; the app offered these influencers a place to amass fans, spout hateful rhetoric, and solicit donations, all without having to compete for eyeballs in an algorithmic feed. Telegram has also enabled the distribution of shooter manifestos as well as information about manufacturing weapons—in 2020, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which tracks anti-Semitism, declared that Telegram was the “online weapon of choice for [the] violent far-right.” And it was allegedly used by some to coordinate the January 6 insurrection, after which it saw a substantial influx of accounts following conspiracy theorists and election deniers. (Shortly after the attack on the Capitol, Telegram said it removed “dozens” of channels for inciting violence.)
Unmoderated free-for-alls that attract dangerous fringe groups are as old as the internet. What makes Telegram different is both its size and its opacity. Although many channels are easily searchable, a great deal of what goes on inside the platform happens in invite-only channels, making it difficult for academics, journalists, or law enforcement to scrutinize or study. A recent Wired investigation of Telegram’s booming gray market for abortion pills turned up 200 public channels containing 47,000 messages, but trying to understand the scope of the market—who was selling legitimate pharmaceuticals and which organizations were fronts or scams—was nearly impossible for the journalists to untangle. Because of the lack of oversight, Telegram channels are the place where information circulates in private after being banned by bigger platforms, as was the case in 2019, when the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto spread widely in Eastern European countries in the weeks after the attack.
“It’s a Wild West kind of platform where anything can kind of happen, so I think there’s a good case to be made that it’s a perfect place for chaos,” Jared Holt, a senior research manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue who monitors right extremism, told me.
That chaos is most apparent during frenetic news events. Although Telegram is a valuable firsthand resource during breaking news, it’s also a confusion machine. The platform offers verification for public figures, but it is nevertheless flooded with sketchy eyewitness accounts and strategically placed propaganda. In a recent paper, the scholars Mariëlle Wijermars and Tetyana Lokot observed that, during the Belarus-election protests, Telegram’s marketing of the platform as a secure, prodemocratic organizing tool led dissidents “to perceive it as an ally in their struggle against repressions and digital censorship,” prompting them to sign up in droves. Meanwhile, the Belarusian state also took advantage of Telegram’s lack of moderation and anti-censorship rules to co-opt the grassroots efforts of democratic activists, manipulating citizens by disseminating propaganda on state-run Telegram channels.
It feels fitting that millions are witnessing the chaos of the 2020s—a decade so far marked by competing versions of science and reality, pandemics, political corruption, war, and the rise of global authoritarianism—through the window of an app that acts as a force multiplier for the chaos it documents. Ultimately, the platform reveals a fundamental truth about the internet: It is extremely difficult to untangle whether a particular piece of technology is the cause of so much of the chaos of modern life or merely an outgrowth, a symptom of it all. Telegram appears to be a vital resource in a world that feels like it is unraveling, despite being one of the many forces pulling at the seams.