Telegram has become not only Russians’ main source of information about Prigozhin’s uprising but also, in a sense, was the space where this revolt took place. With Prigozhin's active participation, a segment has emerged on Russian Telegram with an alternative pro-war agenda, with so-called 'war correspondents' at its core. These war correspondents are highly critical of the military leadership, position themselves in opposition to official propaganda and, in a more veiled manner, to the Kremlin. The alternative pro-war agenda became the ideological platform for the 'uprising' and the reason for widespread sympathy for its motives. However, this effect reflects a more fundamental shift, namely the ongoing decline in the influence of television in the Russian information space. Against the backdrop of a protracted and unsuccessful war, strict censorship on television undermines trust in it as a source of information, especially among younger age groups. According to polling, just over 20% of respondents aged 18–39 now say that they trust television. Ultimately, this stimulates the growth of an alternative information environment that accumulates alternative ideological agendas. However, among these agendas, it is the alternative-patriotic ones that dominate, rather than anti-war sentiments.
Telegram has become the primary tool for both the creation of Prigozhin as a political phenomenon and the main source of information for Russians about the uprising he initiated. In a sense, one could say that the Prigozhin revolt occurred on Telegram and would hardly have been possible without it.
According to a Levada Center survey, readers of Telegram channels were the first to learn about the uprising and became the first to disseminate this information. On the night of Friday–Saturday, only 16% of offline media consumers were aware of the unfolding events, while 28% of those who relied on the Internet and social networks for news and 42% of Telegram users were already aware of what was taking place. By Saturday morning, awareness of the events began to level off: 72% of those who relied on online news sources knew of the uprising, while 65% of those who get their news from family and acquaintances were informed about what was taking place. However, the 'television viewers' remained significantly less informed about what was happening (57%), with Telegram continuing to lead when it came to levels of informedness (86%).
Interestingly, word of mouth played an unusually significant role in spreading information about the uprising. In recent surveys, an average of 18% of those polled have selected the category 'Friends, relatives, neighbours' as a source of information. However, when it came to obtaining information about the uprising, this figure was higher at 29%. To all appearances, word of mouth compensated for the lack of information available to 'television viewers.' As a result, there was a significant redistribution of information flows: the share of television and traditional online sources in the provision of information to the population decreased, while the share of Telegram, YouTube, and word of mouth increased.
The role of Telegram has changed significantly in recent years. The beginning of the war was marked by a sharp increase in the censorship of traditional media and the blocking of several social media platforms in Russia, which led to the growth of Telegram's audience. The share of those who cited it as a news source increased from 7% in 2021 to 18% in the second half of 2022. During this time, Telegram underwent an internal information transformation.
Initially attracting members of the liberal opposition, over time it has also become a favourite information bubble for Russian bureaucrats and quasi-governmental groups. As Re: Russia has previously noted, at some point, Telegram also absorbed the online activity of various nationalists and far-right individuals. It should be noted that, internationally, Telegram underwent a similar evolution as well. Initially serving as a tool for protest movements, after the censorship measures imposed on other social media platforms, it has become a platform for politicians promoting ultra-conservative views (such as Brit Milo Yiannopoulos or Nicholas Fuentes from the United States), far-right figures, and outspoken racists. As a result, by 2023, the platform had gained attention from those representing the entire spectrum of 'niche' political ideologies and social trends.
On Russian Telegram, Prigozhin has played a significant role in the fate of the platform. He was the one who began to create and promote information channels for an alternative pro-war faction in the Russian media space, known as the 'war correspondents' (as Re: Russia has previously discussed). The alternative nature of the 'war correspondents', compared to the official 'war party' based on mainstream television channels, corresponded to the alternative nature of Prigozhin's forces — the Wagner Group — rather than the official units of the Ministry of Defence. The 'war correspondents' became the initial information drivers promoting and branding the Wagner Group as an extremely efficient and victorious army. However, this had little correspondence to reality.
Due to the overwhelming censorship of traditional media and television, the 'war correspondents,' who received information about events on the battlefield from military sources, became the main source of information not only for the pro-war segment of the Russian population but also for global media outlets. Their growing popularity drew the attention of the Kremlin, and meetings with Putin served to legitimise the 'war correspondents' beyond Telegram, positioning them as promising rivals to old-school television propaganda. This newly emerged information-ideological segment promoted the very agenda that Prigozhin championed. The cult-like figure of Prigozhin advocated for 'authentic' militaristic patriotism, contrasting it with the perceived 'treacherous' helplessness and incompetence of the Ministry of Defence’s leadership. This was accompanied by cautious but increasingly evident scepticism towards the Kremlin. This agenda became the agenda of the uprising.
According to data from the Levada Center, in a matter of a few hours on the evening of Friday, June 23, about 23% of the population became aware of the uprising through Telegram and, by Saturday morning, Telegram had full control of the information initiative. Although the uprising created a degree of confusion among the 'war correspondents', Telegram as a whole remained pro-Prigozhin. Putin's address was met with scepticism and bewilderment. According to the Levada Center’s survey, the majority of Telegram channel readers (59%) found Prigozhin's criticism of the Russian military leadership justified, and 37% were confident that Prigozhin had broad support among Russians even after the uprising.
The role played by Telegram in the events of June 23–24 reflects a deeper, fundamental trend. Turning points and seemingly unexpected events often result from significant shifts in the structure of the information space and the level of public trust in information sources, which may have gone unnoticed or underestimated for a while. In this case, we are talking about the ongoing decline in the influence of television and the decreasing level of trust in it, which has led to an increasing demand for alternative information environments.
As is evident in the graphs provided, the decline in the influence of television in Russians’ media consumption occurred in the late 2010s and in 2020. The percentage of those who mentioned television as their main source of information decreased from over 80% in the mid-2010s to 60% in the early 2020s. The invasion of Ukraine temporarily gave television viewership a boost, but the downward trend in its popularity resumed at the beginning of spring 2023. On the other hand, Telegram has continued to gain influence after its initial surge at the beginning of the war, rising from a share of 17% in mid-2022 to 22–23% in May–June 2023. This was undoubtedly influenced by the limited and vague coverage of Russian military failures by traditional, censored media outlets, which generated demand not only for informational alternatives but also for ideological alternatives to television.
Concurrently, the levels of trust in different information sources has also changed. The beginning of the war restored some of the trust television had lost in previous years, but the downward trend resumed from the beginning of 2023. Today, television is being transformed into an information medium primarily favoured by older generations: in June 2023, only 22% of respondents aged 18 to 39 expressed trust in television, while among those over 55, this figure was 61%. The intermediate age group falls exactly in the middle: 40% of respondents in this age range expressed trust in television. At the end of 2022, these shares were 30–32% for younger age groups, 45% for middle-aged individuals, and 63–65% for older age groups. Thus, the decline in trust exhibits a frontal character, with a more accelerated rate of decline observed among young people. On the other hand, although Telegram lags significantly behind television when it comes to trust from older age groups, it has reached a level similar to that of other online resources, overcoming its initial niche character. These shifts are likely to have, and indeed already have had, significant implications for political dynamics in Russia. However, contrary to expectations, the Kremlin’s ideological monopoly is facing a crisis not due to the pressure of anti-war agendas, but rather due to the rise of an alternative agenda of militaristic patriotism.