Telegram: What’s In an App?

By
Tanya Lokot
26 Nov 2018

 


► Shrouded in its self-made mythology of security and privacy, Telegram offers a level playing-field to all kinds of actors in Russia, creating a portable private-public sphere where anyone can be anonymous and yet be the darling of thousands of users hungry for every new disclosure and morsel of opinion.


 

If you’re a Russia-watcher, or even Russia-curious, you have likely heard of the Telegram messenger—perhaps you even have a Telegram account. Created in 2013 by internet entrepreneur Pavel Durov, the founder of Russia’s most-popular social network, VKontakte (VK), Telegram has gained a cult following and a loyal fan base in Russia and beyond. As of March 2018, Telegram had over 200 million active monthly users. What makes this messenger service so newsworthy and attractive? And what is its current status in Russia? Is there more to what happens on Telegram than mere encrypted chatting and daily doses of political gossip?

The Platform

Technically speaking, the services Telegram offers its users are not unique: its messaging functionality is quite similar to that of other messaging services, such as WhatsApp, Viber, or iMessage. Along with ordinary messaging, it also offers a “secret chat” option, which allows users to send end-to-end encrypted messages, meaning that only the intended recipients should be able to read them. Unlike other services, Telegram uses its own custom encryption protocol, MTProto (WhatsApp and Signal, for instance, use the Signal Protocol by Open Whisper Systems). This has raised doubts among cryptographers and computer science experts as to the reliability of Telegram’s encryption, albeit that the platform touts security among its chief priorities.

Pavel Durov at TechCrunch Disrupt Europe: Berlin 2013.

Despite criticism of its security and privacy solutions, Telegram quickly became popular among Russian and Russian-speaking internet users, then spread to other countries, like Iran and Indonesia. The messenger regularly features in news headlines due to its popularity among terrorist groups such as IS; founder Durov’s fiery public statements about internet freedom; and, most recently, the Russian state’s attempts to block Telegram in Russia wholesale.

The Ban

On April 16, 2018, Roskomnadzor, Russia’s telecommunications regulator, instructed the country’s internet service providers to block Telegram for every user in Russia. Durov and his team had previously refused to provide Russia’s Federal Security Service with encryption keys that would give the government access to users’ communications. The sharing of encryption keys with law enforcement is a requirement of the new anti-extremist Yarovaya laws package, so the matter went to court, which handed down a decision to ban Telegram.

"Over 18 million other IP addresses with no evident relation to Telegram were also blocked as collateral damage from the censors’ overbroad crackdown."

The trigger-happy Roskomnadzor went so far as to block IP addresses owned by Google and Amazon that were associated with Telegram services. Over 18 million other IP addresses with no evident relation to Telegram were also blocked as collateral damage from the censors’ overbroad crackdown. However, the messenger was prepared for the block, and largely managed to remain accessible to its users in Russia through the use of domain fronting and other diversions. Supporters of Telegram and other digital rights advocates in Russia also promoted the broader use of VPN services to keep user access to Telegram—and other banned websites—intact.

Given that the ban has therefore turned out to be primarily symbolic, it is worth reflecting on precisely what the Russian state was trying to ban. Telegram is certainly not the only internet service using encryption, and in this case, it was likely chosen as a scapegoat due to its founder’s contentious relationship with the Russian state (in 2014 Durov was pushed out of VK, sold his stake in the company to business structures controlled by a staunch Kremlin loyalist, and shortly thereafter left the country). On the one hand, the block may serve as a warning to other internet companies working in Russia that use encryption, threatening the very principle of secure and private online communication. On the other hand, if we wish to understand why the Kremlin might feel concerned, it is perhaps worth discussing the kinds of activity and discourse that Telegram hosts in Russia.

The Publics

"Channels offer complete anonymity to their authors and audience: no one, apart from the channel manager, can see who has subscribed to the channel or who runs it."

Telegram’s first function was to provide personal private messaging between individual user accounts. This was quickly expanded to include the ability to create group chats—first limited to 200 participants, and later expanded to 100,000 (also called supergroups). Telegram groups are used for anything from neighborhood associations and chats between the parents of schoolchildren to, notoriously, planning extremist and terrorist activity.

What sets Telegram apart from most other messengers is the public channels that users can create or follow. Unlike private one-to-one conversations or semi-private groups, channels are open to the public and can be accessed via an external URL. They are essentially broadcasting devices that users can subscribe to, but they offer a news feed that is not scrambled by algorithms (unlike Facebook’s). There is also no room for user feedback or comments, unless the channel host chooses to enable them via add-ons. Most importantly, channels offer complete anonymity to their authors and audience: no one, apart from the channel manager, can see who has subscribed to the channel or who runs it.  

All of these modes of engagement exist within the same field of vision, conveniently allowing Telegram users to meld the public and private aspects of their lives—an inherent property of networked publics, according to danah boyd. And the Russian Telegram public seems to have embraced this hybrid public-private space quite readily.

The largest audience study and survey of Russian Telegram users to date was conducted in 2017 by Anton Protsenko, who runs the “SMM in Telegram” channel, and his colleague Maksim Kazhdan. 20,000 users participated in the study, providing an extensive dataset that offers demographic, behavioral, and other findings.

The Russian user base of Telegram was estimated to be circa seven million users as of May 2017. Commentators tend to describe this vast audience as being primarily composed of geeks, well-paid IT experts, and media-savvy elites working in journalism, marketing, or government. Protsenko and Kazhdan’s study belies some of these stereotypes. They find that 77 percent of the audience are users between 18-34 years of age, and those over 35 make up only 15 percent of the total number of users. 57 percent of those surveyed have a university degree, and the majority are either working professionals and managers (65 percent) or students (22 percent). Importantly, the survey shows that Telegram users are far from affluent elites: over 50 percent of the respondents say they earn enough “to clothe and feed themselves,” while less than 5 percent say they earn enough “not to deny themselves anything.”  

Surveyed Telegram users were mostly interested in news and information about IT (47 percent), music (46 percent), science (42 percent), cinema (41 percent), and news/media (39 percent). Notably, only 25 percent expressed an interest in political affairs, which is significantly less than the offline figure of 44 percent captured by FOM in their survey of Russians in September 2016. This comparatively low interest in politics contrasts with the vast number of popular Russia-based Telegram channels (many of them anonymous) focused on political news, analysis, and gossip.

Perhaps the most astonishing finding of Protsenko and Kazhdan’s study is that more people use Telegram for its channel functionality than for personal messaging. Eighty-eight percent of those surveyed use personal messaging and over 70 percent participate in group chats, but fully 93 percent follow various Telegram channels and 16 percent run their own channels on the platform. While half of respondents subscribe to fewer than 10 channels, one-third regularly consume content from 10-25 channels. This is yet another reason to reimagine the Russian Telegram segment as a hybrid public-private space where personal messaging rubs shoulders with a new kind of mass media, one in which news, opinion, and commentary are broadcast into the same small window on the screens of people’s phones as their family chats and lovers’ spats.

Figure 1. Main Purposes of Using Telegram (source)

Note: Respondents could choose more than one category. Columns left-to-right:

Personal communications | Group chats (up to 50 people) | Group chats (over 50 people ) | Channels (subscriber) | Channels (author) | Bots | Games

The Channels

The varied offerings of Russian Telegram channels are themselves an interesting melding of well-known media outlets and news aggregators, as well as public figures, anonymous insiders, political gossip, comedy and humor, beauty and fashion influencers, and everything in between.

"Despite Telegram’s overall rhetoric of privacy and security, its channels thrive on the cocktail of anonymity and publicness afforded to them by the platform."

A large chunk of the channels offer syndicated content: news and updates reposted from an outlet’s main website, a VK or Facebook page, or a LiveJournal blog. This usually serves to increase the audience and aims to reach potential readers where they are. This is largely a strategy of convenience, and such channels target the growing number of smartphone users in Russia, aiming to penetrate the walled garden of app-based internet use.

Despite Telegram’s overall rhetoric of privacy and security, its channels thrive on the cocktail of anonymity and publicness afforded to them by the platform. The most popular ones have hundreds of thousands of subscribers and regularly feature in ratings of top social media pages provided by Russian media agencies (such as Medialogia and Alexey Navalny’s new Trrrending service). A channel’s popularity can be measured by its total audience, the average number of views per post, or even the number of times a channel is cited in mainstream media. Russian news outlets regularly publish “best of” lists, recommending both trusted and new Telegram channels to their readers.

Channels run by mainstream media outlets, such as Meduza (@meduzalive, 157K subscribers) or The Bell (@tlebell_io, 23K subscribers), compete with alternative, more irreverent news sources such as @Lentach (the breakaway wing of formerly independent Lenta.ru, over 10K subscribers) and news aggregators. They share user eyeballs with hugely popular personal channels such as IT-news and analysis channel “IT Criminal Cases SORM Rossiyushka” (@unkn0wnerror, run by IT expert Vlad Zdolnikov, 50K subscribers), educational channel “English Language” (@dailyeng, 122K subscribers), and beauty channels such as @donttouchmyface (run by beauty mythbuster Adele Miftakhova, 56K subscribers). Personality-driven channels, which often rack up significantly higher subscriber counts, include perennial RuNet celebrities such as journalist Oleg Kashin (23K subscribers), designer Artemy Lebedev (168K subscribers), and blogger Ilya Varlamov (166K subscribers).

Despite Telegram publics’ seemingly low interest in politics, anonymous political commentary channels continue to thrive on the platform and regularly feature at the top of the ratings. These channels, reportedly run by government insiders or persons close to those in power and privy to backstage Kremlin shenanigans, offer controversial analysis, information leaks, and fuel for conspiracy theories. Internet users and reporters frequently (and at times successfully) seek to unmask the channel authors and reveal their true identity. Among the most popular anonymous channels are Stalingulag (287K subscribers), Nezygar (188K subscribers), and Metodichka (53K subscribers). Their posts are widely shared and cited in mainstream media, though the provenance of the information and analysis is often murky and uncertain. Despite this, the anonymous channels have thousands of readers and therefore accrue value as media properties. Many have begun to monetize their audience through advertising: Stalingulag reportedly prices ads at 150,000 rubles and the value of the channel is speculated to be around five million rubles. The Nezygar channel was sold in 2017, reportedly for 20 million rubles, to Mikhaylov & Partners, a consulting company. The aura of mystery and controversy surrounding these channels seems only to add to their value. Still, it is amazing to see these anonymous entities legitimated by commerce while remaining largely ambiguous in terms of their sources and affiliation.

Trust and Anonymity

"The main reasons for launching these vehicles are self-actualization and a desire to fill the voids in the Russian media sphere unattended to by mainstream media."

As pioneering research on Telegram channels shows, the main reasons for launching these vehicles are self-actualization and a desire to fill the voids in the Russian media sphere unattended to by mainstream media. While public, the Telegram channels are still hosted in a semi-private, siloed platform, so their authors often rely on mutual promotion via word of mouth, suggesting that the community is close-knit and that the content’s life cycle depends on earning the trust of users. This tension between preserving anonymity and seeking trust seems to be a crucial issue for some commentators, especially those who question the possible role of the Russian state in administering the numerous anonymous channels offering political commentary on Telegram. The administrators of the channels themselves tend to shrug off rumors of state puppeteering, preferring to let their users “think what they want.” State officials have so far only added fuel to the fire, with Putin’s spokesman Peskov cheekily admitting in 2017 that the Kremlin was monitoring some Telegram channels and even compiling regular digests of the most interesting posts for the President.

"Odds are, the anonymous channels are run as much by pro-Kremlin personas as by opposition activists."

In an environment where free speech is limited, anonymity can engender a sense of security and offer internet users a modicum of control over their identities. But it can also result in a sense of uncertainty and breed conspiracies and misinformation. The insider leaks can be genuine articles, but they can also be plants; users are never sure who is behind a particular channel and what their agenda might be. Andrey Kaganskikh of the independent website Batenka.ru says the flood of anonymous political commentary on Telegram is reminiscent of the creeping politicization of the Russian-language segment of LiveJournal in the late 2000s. Odds are, the anonymous channels are run as much by pro-Kremlin personas as by opposition activists. When uncertainty prevails, Telegram users seek to reassure themselves by imbibing as much information as they can from varied channels, which can affect who and what users decide to trust in circumstances where they cannot rationally trust anyone. As Kaganskikh notes,

When your neighbors don’t have enough to buy clothes and food, faith in being privy to presidential and gubernatorial intrigues will help them sleep. The secrets of the Kremlin court were always removed from the common man, and in Putin’s third term, even more so. The credibility of the insider leaks has long lost meaning for the broader audience—the main thing is that they have something to believe in.”

A Portable Public Sphere

Telegram’s credibility as a secure and private messaging platform and its status as a symbolic beacon of internet freedom and liberal ideas have given way to a different imaginary: that of a portable private-public sphere. A small app on Russians' smartphones houses a vibrant, sprawling set of discourses indicative of the concerns and aspirations of society. While it may not serve as a complete synecdoche for the multiplicity of Russian lives, Telegram today is not just about or for the elite and intelligentsia. As a new configuration of networked publics, the Telegram discourse is focused not only on politics, technology, and quotidian conversations, but also on culture, literature, and art: popular channels house current affairs commentary and political memes alongside art criticism, book reviews, and channels run by cultural anthropologists.

"A small app on Russians' smartphones houses a vibrant, sprawling set of discourses indicative of the concerns and aspirations of society."

Still, perhaps inevitably, political debates remain central to the public discourse, enabled in part by the anonymity afforded by the platform and Russians’ never-ending desire to make sense of their changing reality. While the provenance of analysis and opinion made available through these anonymous channels is uncertain, it would be reckless to underestimate the importance of conversations and information streams happening on a platform that is so embedded into the interactive online lives of Russians. The content shared on Telegram is easy to consume and can become addictive, making it more powerful. In the hybrid space of an encrypted app, this information may also be harder—but not, in the end, impossible—to quash, control, or co-opt.

Shrouded in its self-made mythology of security and privacy, Telegram offers a level playing-field to all kinds of actors in Russia, creating a portable private-public sphere where anyone can be anonymous and yet be the darling of thousands of users hungry for every new disclosure and morsel of opinion. After the app was banned, the Meduza news outlet called Telegram a “national treasure”—and it might very well be. Treasures, after all, are always multifaceted, complicated, and problematic, and everyone wants to lay claim to the power they offer.


 

Tanya Lokot is an Assistant Professor in the School of Communications at Dublin City University. She studies digital activism and protest in Russia, Ukraine, and the Russian-speaking internet more broadly. She has also reported on it extensively as a contributor and editor with Global Voices’ RuNet Echo.