Before Russia invaded Ukraine, Russian journalist Farida Rustamova used the Telegram chat app for one purpose: to message her friends.
But as authorities shut down media outlets that strayed from the official line, including the publications she wrote for, she began posting her articles on Telegram. Her feed there – where she wrote about the consolidation of Russian elites around President Vladimir V. Putin and the reaction of state media workers to an on-air protest – has already garnered more than 22,000 subscribers.
“It’s one of the few channels left where you can receive information,” she said in a call via Telegram.
While Russia has silenced independent news outlets and banned social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, Telegram has become the largest remaining medium for unrestricted news. Since the start of the war, it has been the most downloaded app in Russia, with around 4.4 million downloads, according to Sensor Tower, an analytics firm. (There have been 124 million Telegram downloads in Russia since January 2014, according to Sensor Tower.)
“Telegram is the only place in Russia where people can freely exchange opinions and information, although the Kremlin has worked hard to infiltrate Telegram channels,” said Ilya Shepelin, who covered media for independent TV channel Rain. , now closed, and created a blog critical of the war.
After the independent Echo Moscow radio station closed last month, its deputy editor, Tatiana Felgengauer said, its Telegram audience doubled. And after Russian authorities blocked access to popular Russian news site Meduza in early March, its Telegram subscriptions doubled to nearly 1.2 million.
“I take my news there,” said Dmitry Ivanov, who is studying computer science at a Moscow university. He said he relied on Telegram to see “the same media that I trust and those whose sites I read before”.
War opponents use the platform for everything from organizing anti-war protests to sharing Western media reports. In March, The New York Times launched its own Telegram channel to ensure readers in the region “can continue to access an accurate account of world events,” the company said in a statement.
But the freedom that has enabled the unfettered exchange of information and opinions has also made Telegram a haven for misinformation, far-right propaganda and hate speech.
Propagandists have their own popular channels – Vladimir Solovyov, the host of a prime-time talk show who is a source of anti-Ukrainian vitriol every weeknight, has more than a million subscribers. Channels supporting Russia’s war, many run by unidentified users, are proliferating.
Public media outlets, such as Tass and RIA News, also broadcast their reports via Telegram.