Two days after Russia invaded Ukraine, an account on the Telegram messaging platform urged President Volodymyr Zelensky to surrender its armed forces.
The message was not authentic, the real Zelensky soon denied the claim on his official Telegram channel, but the incident highlighted a bigger problem: misinformation spreads quickly on encrypted apps.
The fake Zelensky account reached 20,000 followers on Telegram before it was shut down, a remedial action that experts say is all too rare.
Telegram’s Russian-born founder and CEO Pavel Durov said he defended Ukrainian private data from the Russian government nine years ago at the cost of his company and his home. However, he’ll do it again — without hesitation.
However, for Alexandra Tsekhanovska, head of the Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group at the Ukraine Crisis Media Center in Kyiv, the effects of the lack of surveillance on Telegram are both near and far-reaching.
“For Telegram, accountability has always been a problem, which is why it was so popular even before a full-scale war with far-right extremists and terrorists around the world,” he told AFP from his safe home outside the Ukrainian capital. told.
Telegram has 500 million users, who share information individually and in groups in relative safety. But the use of Telegram as a one-way broadcast channel – which followers can join but not respond to – means that content from unauthenticated accounts can easily reach large, captive and curious audiences.
False news is often spread through public groups or chats, with potentially deadly effects.
“Someone posing as a Ukrainian citizen joins the chat and starts spreading misinformation, or collecting data like the location of shelters,” Tsekhanovska said. Cyber security.
Such directives can actually put people in danger – civilians receive air strike warnings via smartphone alerts.
In addition, Telegram’s architecture limits its ability to slow the spread of false information: the lack of a central public feed, and the fact that comments are easily disabled across channels, reduce space for public pushback. .
Although some channels have been removed, the curation process is considered opaque and inadequate by analysts.
Emerson Brooking, a misinformation expert in the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab, said: “In a Wild West period of content moderation like 2014 or 2015, they might have gotten away with it, but it’s in stark contrast to how other companies themselves today. drives it.”
WhatsApp, a rival messaging platform, introduced some measures to combat the propaganda at a time when COVID-19 was first spreading in the world.
WhatsApp, for example, restricted the number of times a user could forward something, and developed automated systems that could detect and flag offensive content.
Unlike Silicon Valley giants like Facebook and Twitter, which run very public anti-Semitism programs, Brooking said: “Telegram is famously lax or absent in its content moderation policy.”
As a result, the pandemic saw many newcomers to Telegram, including prominent anti-vaccine activists, used the app’s hands-off approach to share misinformation on shots, a study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue shows. runs.
Again, unlike Facebook, Google and Twitter, Telegram founder Pavel Durov runs his company from Dubai in relative secrecy.
On 27 February, however, he acknowledged from his Russian-language account that “Telegram channels are increasingly becoming a source of unverified information relating to Ukrainian events.”
He said that since his platform does not have the ability to check all channels, it may ban some “for the duration of the conflict” in Russia and Ukraine, but reversed course hours later after several users complained. Turned out that Telegram was an important source. Information
Oleksandra Matvichuk, a Kyiv-based lawyer and head of the Center for Civil Liberties, called Durov’s position “very weak” and urged concrete reforms.
“It has to start being more proactive and not be in standby without interfering, to find a real solution to this situation. This is a very irresponsible position on the part of the owner of Telegram,” she said.
In the United States, Telegram’s low public profile has helped it avoid high-level scrutiny from Congress, but it has gone unnoticed.
Some used the platform before the storming of the US Capitol in January 2021, and last month Senator Mark Warner sent a letter to Durov urging him to halt Russian information operations on Telegram.
Asked about its stance on disinformation, Telegram spokesman Remy Vaughn told AFP: “As our CEO mentioned, it is extremely difficult to verify the sheer amount of information shared on channels, so it It is important that users double-check what they read.”
But Tsekhanovska of the Ukraine Crisis Media Center points out that communications are often cut short in areas most affected by war, making this kind of cross-reference a luxury that many cannot afford.