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March 2, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:05am

Ukrainian publishers increasingly using secure app Telegram to reach readers

By Andrew Kersley

Ukrainian journalists are increasingly turning to encrypted messaging app Telegram to disseminate the latest news and updates about the Russian invasion of the country.

Telegram is a secure messaging app launched by Russian founder Pavel Durov in 2013, which promises users a lack of intervention from governments or tech companies and the ability to use end-to-end encryption on communication. It reports having some 500 million users worldwide.

Its added security and encryption has meant it has proved popular with pro-democracy protesters in authoritarian states, including most recently during protests in Ukraine’s neighbour Belarus.

The Kyiv Independent, an English language news service formed by the ex-employees of the Kyiv Post, first launched its Telegram channel on 24 February as the Russian invasion was starting. In six days it gained nearly 38,000 subscribers and continues to grow.

Ukrainian-language news site Ukrains’ka Pravda has more than 30,000 followers on its Telegram account, which it first launched in 2017. An array of other outlets including the state broadcaster maintain active channels on the app. The public broadcaster’s account has nearly 200,000 subscribers, and Espreso TV, an online news channel that helped cover the 2014 protest movement, has nearly 45,000.

"Apart from the technical measures of end to end encryption, that is offered by default on Signal and can be used on Telegram, the idea that messenger apps like WhatsApp are leaking to Facebook [its owners] makes people increasingly reluctant in certain contexts to use it," said Silvia Majo-Vazquez, a research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. "There is a perception about the level of privacy on one platform versus the other. People might see independently-founded applications that do not depend on big tech platforms as offering greater security."

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While a WhatsApp chat can have a maximum of 256 members a Telegram channel can have up to 200,000 members, or even an unlimited number in the broadcast channels used by many news sites where only the host can send messages.

Majo-Vazquez cited push notifications on messenger apps like Telegram that mean you can keep track of every new update in a way that is harder to replicate on other social media sites like Facebook or Twitter if kept active, particularly in fast-moving news environment like a war zone.

Messenger apps can also evade government intervention and website hacking and outages, which are potential risks during a war. Majo-Vazquez added: "News outlets will also need to reach the audience in other ways, if for some reason, standard ways like online access is blocked during the invasion."

Telegram in Ukraine also gives outlets a good way to reach out to a hard-to-reach young audience. Past polling by Kantar Ukraine found that almost half of the country's Telegram users were under 25.

The messenger app had already been growing in popularity in Ukraine before the invasion. Nearly two thirds of Ukrainians with Telegram report that 80% or more of their contacts all also use the app. President Volodymyr Zelensky used Telegram himself during his election campaign in 2019.

On Friday, the founder of rival encrypted messenger app Signal, Moxie Marlinspike, accused Telegram of being at risk from government spying in Russia as the Kremlin could "leverage family safety" of Telegram employees to gain access. Telegram responded that the app no longer has any servers or developers based in Russia.

Image: Reuters / Dado Ruvic

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