1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Is Telegram a threat to Ukraine's national security?

April 5, 2024

Ukraine is considering banning Telegram. Pro-Russian channels on the messenger ap are allegedly spreading misinformation about Ukrainian military and politics.

The Telegram app in the Apple app store seen on a smartphone
Ukraine is debating a ban on Telegram over its anonymity and spread of disinformationImage: IMAGO

This is the type of message one might come across on Ukrainian Telegram channels:

 "The Armed Forces of Ukraine are recruiting homeless people."

"Ukrainians are going to surrender Kharkiv."

"Ukrainian border guards were allowed to open fire on those trying to flee Ukraine."

These messages, monitored by the Ukrainian Center for Countering Disinformation, are distributed by allegedly pro-Russian Telegram channels, apparently to sow panic and disinformation about Ukraine's military affairs and political establishment. The speed and anonymity of Telegram have heightened the debate over whether to block the platform in Ukraine.

This issue has reached political circles, with discussions now within the Ukrainian parliamentary committee on freedom of speech, who raised their concerns about the platform.

What is Telegram?

Banning Telegram is not an easy step to take. Its rapidly growing popularity in Ukraine has made it the most popular resource for news consumption. Before the Russian invasion three years ago, only 20% of Ukrainians used Telegram as a news source. In 2023, Telegram has shown growth of up to 72%.

Telegram is incredibly popular globally, with around 700-800 million monthly users. While WhatsApp reigns supreme, Telegram is widely used in Eastern Europe, as well as in India, Indonesia, the United States and Brazil

A key feature of Telegram is anonymity. Anyone can create their own channel there and write anything while remaining anonymous. This means people can often publish unverified content, photos or videos.

Ian Garner, historian and analyst of Russian culture and war propaganda, says this anonymity makes Telegram "the Wild West, where there are no rules, no control, and you have no idea what's real, what's true, who to trust, whether to trust anyone at all."

Telegram co-founder Pavel Durov
Telegram co-founder Pavel Durov relocated the company's headquarters to Dubai to distance himself from Russian influenceImage: Tatan Syuflana/AP/picture alliance

Who pulls Telegram's strings?

Initially created by Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov and his brother Nikolai, Telegram has, for its part, renounced Russian influence and moved its office to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

Durov earned the nickname "Russia's Zuckerberg" for launching Vkontakte, the country's largest social media platform, at the age of 22. Vkontakte was among those banned in Ukraine in 2017. Ukrainian authorities first raised concerns about the influence of Russian social media and websites after the Russian annexation of Crimea and its first offensive against Ukraine in 2014.

But Telegram has now become a vital source for real-time updates on air sirens and missile strikes in Ukraine. With many Ukrainians displaced or abroad and lacking access to televisions, some Telegram channels have become fully-fledged media outlets. 

These channels were established by media figures, political analysts and bloggers, but the anonymous ones have become the biggest threat, as they often publish unverified information and outright lies.

A Ukrainian refugee sitting in a train station in Poland looks at his phone
Telegram saw a remarkable 72% surge in Ukraine after the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion in 2022Image: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto/IMAGO

Nevertheless, their influence has escalated swiftly, prompting Ukrainian government officials to establish their own Telegram channels in response. Today, nearly every village head, regional council leader, city mayor, and even the president maintain official channels on Telegram to disseminate information directly to the public.

One of the most popular Telegram channels in Ukraine is "Trukha," which stands for "True Kharkiv," referencing the city near the Russian border, though it covers news about the whole of Ukraine and has more than 2.5 million subscribers. It stirred controversy when it was allowed to attend President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's closed meeting with journalists in October last year.

"Trukha" was anonymous for a long time and faced accusations of spreading misinformation and sharing prohibited content, such as videos or photos of the aftermath of Russian missile strikes. Despite its questionable reputation, it was invited to Zelenskyy's year-end press conference in 2023, while other professional media were reportedly denied access. 

To ban or not to ban Telegram in Ukraine?

The Ukrainian parliamentary freedom of speech committee is not the only one to be concerned: Andriy Yusov, a representative of Ukraine's military intelligence, views Telegram as a threat to "information and not only information security" of Ukraine. Oleksiy Danilov, ex-secretary of Ukraine's National Security Council, has echoed these concerns, particularly emphasizing worries about the anonymity of channels on the platform.

Meanwhile, users seek answers to another question: What about freedom of speech? Some Telegram users have expressed worries that a ban would violate their freedoms.

But a ban is unlikely, says Diana Dutsyk, head of the Ukrainian Media and Communications Institute and a member of Ukraine's Commission on Journalistic Ethics. She points out that Telegram is used by the president's office, which indicates there's a lack of political will for such a measure.

But there is still a conflict between security concerns and Telegram's necessity. "Considering its significance as a key tool for political influence, especially in possible elections, immediate blocking seems improbable," Dutsyk stressed.

Information security in Ukraine 'a matter of life and death'

Yaroslav Yurchyshyn, chairman of the Ukrainian parliamentary freedom of speech committee, said that the discussion is ongoing, with no final decision yet, and they [authorities] are working to avoid a ban.

The committee does not have the power to ban Telegram in Ukraine, but it can provide recommendations. The Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council would make the ultimate decision.

A Telegram ban could be the last possible step if the cooperation with Telegram won't work, according to Yurchyshyn, "because the price of such holes in information security, which allow Russian propaganda to penetrate into Ukrainian information products easily, is very high in our country. A matter of life and death for our citizens."

Edited by: Ben Knight