Technology sector

Telegram: the app at the heart of the Ukrainian propaganda battle | Technology sector

IIn the days following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of his country, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy used his Telegram channel to send a defiant video message from the center of the capital, Kyiv, calling on the nation to unite and resist the Russian attack.

The WhatsApp-like messaging service, co-founded by exiled Russian billionaire brothers Pavel and Nikolai Durov, has become a key weapon in a digital propaganda battle that will ultimately boost its usage and investor profile ahead of a potential IPO of $50 billion next year. .

Ukraine’s 44-year-old president, a former TV actor and comedian who campaigned on Telegram ahead of his landslide victory in the 2019 presidential election, used the service to refute claims the military had received the order to lay down arms, that an evacuation had been ordered – and to galvanize the population by proving that he would not leave the capital.

A video capture of the defiant message Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy sent on Telegram. Photo: AFP Photo

Telegram, which has more than 550 million monthly users worldwide, is already Ukraine’s most popular messaging app. The service’s high-profile encryption and ability to broadcast messages to groups of up to 200,000 people – Facebook-owned WhatsApp’s limit is 256 members – has dubbed it the ‘app of choice’ for terrorists .

Telegram was banned in Russia in 2018 after Pavel Durov refused to give authorities access to his user data. However, the crackdown, which included blocking IP addresses, was easy to circumvent, and the service continued to grow. Russia relented and lifted the ban in mid-2020.

The app was adopted as the primary source of news outside of state-controlled media, and during the war in Ukraine it became a 24-hour lifeline for civilians, journalists, and even civilians. military.

It has become the go-to platform for protest groups of all kinds, from Extinction Rebellion to anti-vaccination groups, from rioters in the US Capitol to pro-democracy campaigns in states such as Belarus, Hong Kong and Iran, allied with Russia.

But Telegram’s role in spreading unverified information alarmed Durov, 37, nicknamed Russian Mark Zuckerberg, after he founded what is still by far the country’s most popular social network, VKontakte (VK) in 2006. .

Last weekend it said it was considering shutting down the service in the “countries involved” for the duration of the dispute.

“We don’t want Telegram to be used as a tool that exacerbates conflict and incites ethnic hatred,” Durov said on Sunday.

A few hours later, he changed his mind, following massive requests from users, who said it was their only source of information. “Check and do not trust the data published on Telegram channels during this difficult time,” Durov advised.

Jamie MacEwan, media analyst at research service Enders, said. “It’s another example of Telegram’s connection to resistance movements. It’s been an integral part of its reputation over the past couple of years as it’s exploded. It’s associated with being a safe haven.

Telegram logo seen on a mobile phone screen in front of Facebook and Twitter logos
Telegram is seen as a haven for resistance movements. Photography: Pavlo Gonchar/Rex

Durov is known for his occasional eccentric behavior – he once threw paper airplanes made from banknotes through the windows of the VKontakte office, sparking fights in the street below, and he publicly offered a job to Edward Snowden. He’s now on a mission to make his second tech venture the success story that was finally snatched from him the first time around.

During anti-Putin protests in 2012, Durov became hugely popular for refusing to shut down groups that used the social media site to stage marches. Two years later, he was the victim of a hostile investor coup that saw VK take over the Mail.Ru group, run by Russian billionaire and Putin ally Alisher Usmanov. In December, the Kremlin tightened its grip on the company when the Russian insurance company Sogaz, founded by the giant Gazprom, took control of VK.

Durov sold and left the company and the country, becoming a citizen of Saint Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean, after resisting Kremlin pressure to release data from Ukraine’s protest leaders.

It’s no surprise that Telegram, which he started with his brother Nikolai in 2013 and is headquartered in Dubai, is all about security and privacy.

Publicity averse, Durov, who has a penchant for dressing all in black, nevertheless devotes much of his energy to criticizing the security standards of rivals, including global leader WhatsApp.

In recent years, security experts have in turn questioned Telegram’s claims of superiority, pointing out that, unlike its rivals, it does not offer end-to-end encryption by default on all of its messaging options.

Moxie Marlinspike, creator of popular secure messaging app Signal, took to Twitter last week to remind Ukrainians that Telegram isn’t as encrypted as people think, after what he called a “decade misleading marketing and press”.

Durov’s experience at VK left him with an aversion to bringing in outside investors to fund Telegram. With an estimated fortune of over $17 billion, he was able to support her for most of her youth without outside help. But the search for alternative ways to raise the funds needed to drive growth led him to an ultimately disastrous foray into the world of crypto-assets.

In 2018, Durov embarked on a plan to raise billions through the launch of a cryptocurrency called Grams, a company that sparked an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in the United States.

Presales ahead of the planned initial coin offering (ICO), which would have funded a proposed system of Telegram Open Network (TON) application services and a store of digital and physical goods, drew an enthusiastic response from a first group of selected investors, raising $1.7 billion.

But two years later, Telegram shut down TON and agreed to an $18.5 million settlement with the SEC, which argued Grams circumvented US funding laws. He ordered that the money be returned to the investors.

The fundraising setback hasn’t slowed growth, however: in early 2021, Telegram reported the largest increase in users in its history – 25 million in 72 hours.

Durov, who is now also a French citizen, attributed the rush to new Telegramers to an announcement by WhatsApp clarifying its privacy policy on sharing data with parent Facebook. Durov added, quite grandly, “We are witnessing perhaps the greatest digital migration in human history.”

WhatsApp’s policy did not include sharing message content, but it scared off many users, who defected to other platforms anyway: Telegram and Signal were the biggest beneficiaries.

“The increase in Telegram downloads is [partly] driven by growing consumer anxiety over the power of the biggest tech companies and privacy concerns,” said Forrester analyst Xiaofeng Wang.

A few months after this user boost, the Russian economic newspaper Vedomosti reported that unnamed sources close to the company claimed a $50 billion initial public offering was on the cards by the end of next year.

A successful IPO would cement the rise of Telegram, which began to make progress on the extremely difficult proposition of making money from messaging service users.

Durov, who once swore Telegram would never run ads, is seeking to monetize the platform through a combination of “privacy-protected” advertising and channel sponsorship.

“The timing of the emergence of talk of an IPO is quite telling, coming almost immediately after the boom in early 2021, when its potential users started to explode,” MacEwan says at Enders. “I think the momentum they have now, the massive user clout, and the fact that they’re experimenting with ‘confidential’ advertising make them an attractive candidate for floatation.”

A Telegram spokesperson confirmed the company was pursuing plans for an initial public offering and that some pre-IPO bonds had been sold with a five-year expiry, but warned the timing was uncertain.

“As for IPO plans, they will depend on the economic situation at the time,” he said.