14.11.22 Propaganda Review

Telegram's Frankenstein: how social media dynamics are changing the political agenda in Russia

During the war in Ukraine, Russians have become less active on social media. At the same time, Telegram is showing the highest growth rates in the audience and user-generated content. Russian users gain access to blocked content from independent media through Telegram, and Russian authorities actively use this social media's popularity to spread propaganda messages and increase the "war party's" presence in the media space. We can say that Telegram is gradually becoming a rival of television in shaping national political agendas.

The overall activity of Russian-speaking social media users has decreased during the war: the number of active daily authors has declined by 12%, and the volume of their published content — by 4%, Brand Analytics experts wrote in their latest report. At the same time, users have massively migrated to Telegram, whose audience from February to September grew one and a half times (58%), and the volume of daily published content — by 24%. Other leading Russian-speaking social media, VK  and Odnoklassniki, are demonstrating only a minor increase in users and posts, while YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok are losing their audiences.

Audience and content of Russian-speaking social media, February-September 2002, % growth

The calculation includes all authors who publish or republish at least one public message, story, or comment per day. The activity of Telegram spam bots, which account for more than 40% of this platform's traffic, was excluded.

Although Russian-speaking Telegram is still significantly behind VK (8.73 million and 13.2 million messages per day, respectively), it has become the most valuable source of information for Russian Internet users during the war. "Telegram accumulates the news agenda, while YouTube remains the main platform for video bloggers," the report's authors say.

On the one hand, Telegram has become the most vital source of information from many independent media outlets and resources that were blocked and banned in Russia. On the other hand, it has also become the most powerful tool for propaganda, information campaigns, fakes, and provocations by the Kremlin and its affiliated structures. The Kremlin has shifted from trying to block Telegram to its active use, therefore exercising "third-generation control," which is an active shaping of content instead of its restriction (read more about this in the article "Putin's Fans or Kremlin Bots?").

Russia's propaganda machine is effectively using Telegram to increase its influence: "Telegram news channels with tens of thousands of subscribers feed users hatred, duplicate the broadcasts of state channels, emotionally comment on politicians' statements and even post videos of murdered Ukrainian soldiers to the patriotic Russian rap," says Sergey Dedovich, a writer, who has published an overview of popular Russian news channels. Since this social media platform is popular among Russian-speaking users outside Russia too, it is also used for propaganda to the Ukrainian audience. In the summer, the Security Service of Ukraine published a list of one hundred Telegram channels posing as Ukrainian ones, while spreading pro-Russian messages.

But Telegram's main content phenomenon has recently become the pool of "war correspondents," military bloggers who formulate today's political agenda, perhaps even more than Vladimir Solovyov, the television singer for the "total war". It is precisely the "war correspondents" who become the striking power in the struggle between different factions of the security forces, and it was the Telegram that largely ensured the sudden political ascent of "Putin's cook" Prigozhin. According to the analysis by "Novaya Gazeta. Europe", the authorities are actively influencing the nature of war correspondents' coverage of events on the frontline. However, the opposite influence is no less significant. According to Alexander Prokopenko, an expert at the Carnegie Center, Telegram has become the major channel for influencing Vladimir Putin: "The Presidential Press Service and Information Department daily puts an overview of major media outlets and Telegram channels on Putin's desk. Having lost access to the body of the state's head due to Covid restrictions, they remain in his sight, getting into these reviews."

Remaining a tool equally useful to the anti-war party and various factions of the "war party," Telegram is increasingly becoming a rival and substitute for television in shaping national political agendas and as a tool of informational influence.