How Telegram found itself at the heart of the Ukrainian conflict

A side-project from the founder of Russia's Facebook has become vital to many.

Thomas Trutschel via Getty Images

Since its launch in 2013, Telegram has grown from a simple messaging app to a broadcast network. Its user base isn’t as vast as WhatsApp’s, and its broadcast platform is a fraction the size of Twitter, but it’s nonetheless showing its use. While Telegram has been embroiled in controversy for much of its life, it has become a vital source of communication during the invasion of Ukraine. But, if all of this is new to you, let us explain, dear friends, what on Earth a Telegram is meant to be, and why you should, or should not, need to care.

What is Telegram?

At its heart, Telegram is little more than a messaging app like WhatsApp or Signal. But it also offers open channels that enable a single user, or a group of users, to communicate with large numbers in a method similar to a Twitter account. This has proven to be both a blessing and a curse for Telegram and its users, since these channels can be used for both good and ill. Right now, as Wired reports, the app is a key way for Ukrainians to receive updates from the government during the invasion.

Who made Telegram?

Telegram was co-founded by Pavel and Nikolai Durov, the brothers who had previously created VKontakte. VK is Russia’s equivalent of Facebook, a social network used for public and private messaging, audio and video sharing as well as online gaming. In January, SimpleWeb reported that VK was Russia’s fourth most-visited website, after Yandex, YouTube and Google’s Russian-language homepage. In 2016, Forbes’ Michael Solomon described Pavel Durov (pictured, below) as the “Mark Zuckerberg of Russia.”

Does VK own Telegram, like Facebook owns WhatsApp?

Oh no. There’s a certain degree of myth-making around what exactly went on, so take everything that follows lightly. Telegram was originally launched as a side project by the Durov brothers, with Nikolai handling the coding and Pavel as CEO, while both were at VK.

In February 2014, the Ukrainian people ousted pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, prompting Russia to invade and annex the Crimean peninsula. By the start of April, Pavel Durov had given his notice, with TechCrunch saying at the time that the CEO had resisted pressure to suppress pages criticizing the Russian government.

The next bit isn’t clear, but Durov reportedly claimed that his resignation, dated March 21st, was an April Fools’ prank. TechCrunch implies that it was a matter of principle, but it’s hard to be clear on the wheres, whos and whys. Similarly, on April 17th, the Moscow Times quoted Durov as saying that he quit the company after being pressured to reveal account details about Ukrainians protesting the then-president Viktor Yanukovych.

Either way, Durov says that he withdrew his resignation but that he was ousted from his company anyway. Subsequently, control of the company was reportedly handed to oligarchs Alisher Usmanov and Igor Sechin, both allegedly close associates of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

At this point, however, Durov had already been working on Telegram with his brother, and further planned a mobile-first social network with an explicit focus on anti-censorship. Later in April, he told TechCrunch that he had left Russia and had “no plans to go back,” saying that the nation was currently “incompatible with internet business at the moment.” He added later that he was looking for a country that matched his libertarian ideals to base his next startup.

Telegram founder and CEO Pavel Durov delivers his keynote conference during day two of the Mobile World Congress at the Fira Gran Via complex in Barcelona, Spain on February 23, 2016. The annual Mobile World Congress hosts some of the world's largest communication companies, the show runs from the 22 to 25 February. Photo by Manuel Blondeau/AOP.Press/Corbis (Photo by AOP.Press/Corbis via Getty Images)
Manuel Blondeau - Corbis via Getty Images

How does it make money?

On Telegram’s website, it says that Pavel Durov “supports Telegram financially and ideologically while Nikolai (Duvov)’s input is technological.” Currently, the Telegram team is based in Dubai, having moved around from Berlin, London and Singapore after departing Russia. Meanwhile, the company which owns Telegram is registered in the British Virgin Islands.

At the start of 2018, the company attempted to launch an Initial Coin Offering (ICO) which would enable it to enable payments (and earn the cash that comes from doing so). The initial signals were promising, especially given Telegram’s user base is already fairly crypto-savvy. It raised an initial tranche of cash – worth more than a billion dollars – to help develop the coin before opening sales to the public. Unfortunately, third-party sales of coins bought in those initial fundraising rounds raised the ire of the SEC, which brought the hammer down on the whole operation. In 2020, officials ordered Telegram to pay a fine of $18.5 million and hand back much of the cash that it had raised.

On December 23rd, 2020, Pavel Durov posted to his channel that the company would need to start generating revenue. In early 2021, he added that any advertising on the platform would not use user data for targeting, and that it would be focused on “large one-to-many channels.” He pledged that ads would be “non-intrusive” and that most users would simply not notice any change.

So, uh, whenever I hear about Telegram, it’s always in relation to something bad. What gives?

Given the pro-privacy stance of the platform, it’s taken as a given that it’ll be used for a number of reasons, not all of them good. And Telegram has been attached to a fair few scandals related to terrorism, sexual exploitation and crime. Back in 2015, Vox described Telegram as “ISIS’ app of choice,” saying that the platform’s real use is the ability to use channels to distribute material to large groups at once. Telegram has acted to remove public channels affiliated with terrorism, but Pavel Durov reiterated that he had no business snooping on private conversations.

This ability to mix the public and the private, as well as the ability to use bots to engage with users has proved to be problematic. In early 2021, a database selling phone numbers pulled from Facebook was selling numbers for $20 per lookup. Similarly, security researchers found a network of deepfake bots on the platform that were generating images of people submitted by users to create non-consensual imagery, some of which involved children.

Telegram has become more interventionist over time, and has steadily increased its efforts to shut down these accounts. But this has also meant that the company has also engaged with lawmakers more generally, although it maintains that it doesn’t do so willingly. For instance, in September 2021, Telegram reportedly blocked a chat bot in support of (Putin critic) Alexei Navalny during Russia’s most recent parliamentary elections. Pavel Durov was quoted at the time saying that the company was obliged to follow a “legitimate” law of the land. He added that as Apple and Google both follow the law, to violate it would give both platforms a reason to boot the messenger from its stores.

The company maintains that it cannot act against individual or group chats, which are “private amongst their participants,” but it will respond to requests in relation to sticker sets, channels and bots which are publicly available. During the invasion of Ukraine, Pavel Durov has wrestled with this issue a lot more prominently than he has before. Channels like Donbass Insider and Bellum Acta, as reported by Foreign Policy, started pumping out pro-Russian propaganda as the invasion began. So much so that the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council issued a statement labeling which accounts are Russian-backed. Ukrainian officials, in potential violation of the Geneva Convention, have shared imagery of dead and captured Russian soldiers on the platform.

On February 27th, Durov posted that Channels were becoming a source of unverified information and that the company lacks the ability to check on their veracity. He urged users to be mistrustful of the things shared on Channels, and initially threatened to block the feature in the countries involved for the length of the war, saying that he didn’t want Telegram to be used to aggravate conflict or incite ethnic hatred. He did, however, walk back this plan when it became clear that they had also become a vital communications tool for Ukrainian officials and citizens to help coordinate their resistance and evacuations.

I want a secure messaging app, should I use Telegram?

You may recall that, back when Facebook started changing WhatsApp’s terms of service, a number of news outlets reported on, and even recommended, switching to Telegram. Pavel Durov even said that users should delete WhatsApp “unless you are cool with all of your photos and messages becoming public one day.” But Telegram can’t be described as a more-secure version of WhatsApp.

Telegram does offer end-to-end encrypted communications through Secret Chats, but this is not the default setting. Standard conversations use the MTProto method, enabling server-client encryption but with them stored on the server for ease-of-access. This makes using Telegram across multiple devices simple, but also means that the regular Telegram chats you’re having with folks are not as secure as you may believe.

If you initiate a Secret Chat, however, then these communications are end-to-end encrypted and are tied to the device you are using. That means it’s less convenient to access them across multiple platforms, but you are at far less risk of snooping. Back in the day, Secret Chats received some praise from the EFF, but the fact that its standard system isn’t as secure earned it some criticism. If you’re looking for something that is considered more reliable by privacy advocates, then Signal is the EFF’s preferred platform, although that too is not without some caveats.

One thing that Telegram now offers to all users is the ability to “disappear” messages or set remote deletion deadlines. That enables users to have much more control over how long people can access what you’re sending them. Given that Russian law enforcement officials are reportedly (via Insider) stopping people in the street and demanding to read their text messages, this could be vital to protect individuals from reprisals.