There were 203 Russians reportedly convicted for online speech crimes in 2015, and roughly half of those were for posting, sharing, or liking something on Russia’s Facebook clone, VK.com.
As a result, many Russians seem to be moving into a post-social-networking era. Specifically, they are turning to Telegram, an encrypted messaging service founded by Pavel Durov, the same person who started VK but was later forced out and became an open critic of the Kremlin.
Despite being developed as a messaging service, Telegram has been able to approximate a very basic social network. The service’s “channels” have been compared to newsletters, where authors build a subscriber base and following for their missives. Users can’t chat in a channel or interact directly with its authors unless the author explicitly shares their Telegram username, which means less noise in the channels. Users can still share posts, however, which means memes and popular posts can still spread fast. Authors can grow a substantial following similar to YouTube or Facebook, although much smaller — Telegram claims to have 100 million users, but even recommended channels have fewer than 50,000 followers. The ecosystem is also disjointed, with no central search engine and no good way to discover new channels without following a bot or looking at lists on the web.
Telegram isn’t completely secure. There has been at least one report alleging that the Kremlin cracked Telegram, and it’s certainly not the most secure messaging app on the market. The Russian government also reportedly collaborated with a cell phone operator to take over two activists’ accounts in 2016.
So why do Russians prefer Telegram to the widely trusted encrypted messaging app Signal, or other messaging services that are more secure? The reason is the emphasis on publishing.
Anyone can log in and start a channel, but the interface is extremely minimal — basically, it looks like crap. To make up for this, Telegram invites developers to make add-ons for its platform, including clients, and bots that let users add stickers, font styling, links, and polls. Authors can also use Telegram’s service Telegra.ph, which is essentially a clone of Facebook Instant Articles.
Journalists and people working in media were the first to start posting in channels — some anonymously, most by name. In some cases, their individual following is higher than the number of people subscribed to the official accounts of news organizations, many of which have their own channels on Telegram.
Today, Telegram has a great variety of channels. You can subscribe to “skill channels” and learn Excel in GIFs or find out about digital-marketing from professionals working in the industry. There is even a channel for a guy working as a surveyor and looking for oil in the Arctic, and one led by an aspiring doctor writing about medicine for millennials.
The app also supports a number of channels around delicate topics including drugs, raving, sex, and politics. “Traditional shakedown near the ‘Rodnya’ club, be ready,” one techno channel posted, alerting its users.
There is also support for those dealing with mental illness. Psychostory is a channel allegedly run by a 25-year-old woman struggling with depression. “I met with one of my subscribers today, she was in a state psychiatric clinic in her childhood,” a recent post read in Russian. “She told me that no one really cared about the kids with suicidal tendencies there, they just took all the sharp things away from them. Those children found rough walls lacked renovation and rubbed themselves to blood which sometime stayed unwashed for days.” The author of this channel announced in February that she has a book contract with one of the biggest publishing houses in Russia. “This is the first book from a Telegram channel,” she wrote.
Even if you don’t get a book deal, it’s possible to monetize a channel on Telegram with ads. The service doesn’t have an official ad network, but it does have a primitive black market. Advertisers contact the owner of a channel to negotiate, and at least anecdotally, the clickthrough rates are good.
For many, Telegram is primarily a source of news. The information there is sometimes reliable, often not, and it’s difficult to tell — but the app has been praised for circumventing the traditional state-controlled media.
“This is the first book from a Telegram channel.”
Telegram hasn’t escaped the Kremlin’s notice. In January, authorities were reportedly exploring ways to identify users of messaging apps including Telegram, WhatsApp, and Viber by regulating SIM card contracts. Then in February, some channel authors reportedly attended an unofficial meeting with Roskomnadzor. Afterward, one of the channel authors, who specializes in the intersection of politics and information technology, said that officials wanted to know more about how exactly Telegram works.
If anonymity is truly compromised on Telegram, much of its appeal for Russians will go away. Even though there is no way to vet sources of information on the app, it’s a thriving alternative to the increasingly censored web, where a user can go to jail for sharing a meme.
Andrey Urodov is a freelance journalist and the publisher of the magazine Russia Without Us.