Not long after tanks rolled into Ukraine, Vladimir Putin started to block social media at home. Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok were curtailed. The move was straight out of the contemporary dictator’s playbook: Take away the potential to go viral, and people can’t spread a narrative that might undermine the leader’s legitimacy. It was also a sign that Putin is wary of the loud, public criticisms that have fueled many global protest movements over the past decade. Yet high-visibility social-media platforms are not the sole domain of resistance. Alongside them is a quieter, focused, and private medium that Ukrainians and Russians against the war have turned to: the chat app.
In Eastern Europe, Telegram is proving the most popular of these platforms—just last summer it hit 1 billion downloads, with Russians being the second-most-frequent users in the world. Launched in 2013, Telegram has already shown itself to be enormously helpful for protesters in places such as Hong Kong and Belarus. Unlike the dominant social-media platforms, with their ping-pong of loud, public declarations all looking to grab maximum attention, a chat app operates on the kind of lower register that has always been crucial for a healthy civil society. What it offers is some degree of privacy and focus on the internet, a sphere where we frequently assume all our utterances are automatically for public consumption and where our concentration is scrambled every other second.
Telegram might appear similar to messengers like WhatsApp but, importantly, it contains public channels that allow for one-to-many communication. Telegram doesn’t point users toward these channels, and you need to subscribe to receive their feeds. Each is a silo, a dedicated newswire not meant for commenting or sharing. The Kyiv Independent runs a good example of one: As I’m writing this, the scrappy English-language news publication, which started up just a few months ago, has nearly 50,000 subscribers, and is providing a steady drumbeat of dispatches that never exceed a couple hundred words, perhaps about the location of Russian air strikes or the latest sanctions. Other channels have more than 1 million subscribers—enabled by an unlimited maximum size that also differentiates Telegram from other major chat apps. More familiar from other messengers are the closed groups. These are now being used by Mariupol residents looking to find missing relatives and by relief workers throughout Ukraine coordinating refugee caravans headed for the Polish border. In addition to these options for connecting collectively, Telegram allows users to send one-to-one messages, which operate much like regular text messages except they can be end-to-end encrypted—that is, secret.
Any of these capabilities can be weaponized, of course, and Telegram also has a reputation as home to conspiracy theorists, rights-wing extremists, and drug dealers. In the United States, many of the people kicked off mainstream platforms for violating their rules have reemerged on Telegram. Some of the individuals who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, used Telegram to plan the day’s events ahead of time, according to federal prosecutors. A Der Spiegel article recently referred to the app as “a darknet in your pocket.” And one can easily imagine how such an app could be used in Russia and Ukraine to disseminate disinformation or give bad actors a place to hang out.
That good or evil can flourish in closed rooms shouldn’t be a surprise, but it doesn’t take away from this tool’s importance for activists and dissidents. To see why, you just have to compare this moment to the Arab Spring, which began a little over a decade ago. At that time, Facebook and Twitter were praised for their ability as powerful bullhorns to get protesters to the streets with great speed and at enormous scale. In Egypt, they enabled the massive turnout at Tahrir Square that eventually brought down then-President Hosni Mubarak. The problems came afterward. The unlikely coalition that came together to protest found social media largely useless for the purpose of building and sustaining political power. This was especially true when faced with the well-oiled machines of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian army, entities with the hierarchical structure and ideological cohesion to get what they wanted out of a leadership vacuum.
Mahmoud Salem, one of the activists who was in Tahrir Square, wrote at the time that social media gave the revolution a “spirit for destruction.” The constant push for attention, the purity spiraling in which each activist had to prove himself more loyal to the revolution than any other, the disdain for the compromises of politics or the hard work of organizing—the coalition’s problems all seemed to extend from the culture of highly public platforms. It was, Salem wrote, “group-think on steroids—an abomination of a monster with thousands of arms and no brain.”
So how is a chat app different? Consider the varied definitions of what it means to be “social.” Facebook or Twitter is social in the way a large cocktail party is, where you move from one conversation to the next, only half-hearing most of what is said, and where the loudest voice or funniest joke grabs everyone’s attention. You might come home from the festivities with a slight buzz but wonder whether you actually connected with anyone. A chat app can be social like a huddle of people in focused conversation. Participants are speaking to be heard by one another, not by the entire world. There is more concentration and potential for intimacy, and much less performance.
For Ukrainians and Russians resisting the war, the different ways of engaging through Telegram—receiving information through dedicated channels, forming groups committed to one topic, or chattering in hushed tones—benefit a people that will likely have to sustain a long insurgency. Using a tool such as this one provides the opportunity to build what Zeynep Tufekci in her book, Twitter and Tear Gas, calls “network internalities”: all those deep relationships that help any movement survive through hardships—as there no doubt will be.
Chat apps are merely the latest expression of the smaller, more controlled spaces that have always been central to incubating new ideas or challenging existing ones. During an earlier iteration of Russian authoritarianism, in the Soviet Union, samizdat played this role. The underground, illegal, and self-produced writing, passed hand to hand, kept alive a shadow civil society during repressive periods. Samizdat allowed ideas to be exchanged, human- and civil-rights violations to be documented, a whole alternative worldview and set of values to ferment. The lineage of such underground communication stretches across history, from the 17th-century scholars in Europe who collaborated through letters on scientific experiments in defiance of Church doctrine all the way to the xeroxed and stapled zines of the 1990s, which set the tone of third-wave feminism.
If Telegram is a similarly vital tool, it still comes with issues. Every cybersecurity expert I spoke with emphasized how insecure the app actually is. Even though it touts its own safety, it doesn’t actually have end-to-end encryption—the gold standard of messaging privacy—by default. You only get it when you opt in to its “secret messages” function in one-to-one communication. For Eva Galperin, the director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, this is a big worry. She knows she won’t be able to get people off an app that they and all of their acquaintances use (the well-known “network effect”), but she’s trying to encourage some kind of “harm reduction” among users—a term she told me she “stole blatantly from social workers trying to help drug addicts.” Reducing harm might mean making sure, for example, that users turn on the app’s self-destruct function for messages so that if their phones are confiscated, authorities can’t view their missives. The chance that Ukrainians will actually switch en masse to a more secure app like Signal is slim, although according to the internet-security company Cloudflare, four days after the invasion began, traffic to Signal in Ukraine exceeded that of traffic to Telegram for the first time.
The other worry about Telegram is its opacity as a company. Telegram’s founder, Pavel Durov, is a Russian national of whom little is known beyond the photos he posts of himself shirtless and doing yoga poses in Dubai. In the first days of the war, he surprised users by telling his own 650,000-subscriber channel that he just might shut down Telegram because it was “increasingly becoming a source of unverified information.” But he quickly backtracked and posted again to prove that he was no friend to the Russian authorities—Durov had to leave both Russia and his first company in 2013 when, he said, he refused to hand over data on Ukrainian protesters. There is little transparency around the company’s decisions, the state of its servers, or how it monitors what happens on its platform. Durov’s rare and delphic pronouncements are no reassurance.
Whether Telegram itself survives or is eventually supplanted by another app is of secondary importance. What matters is that embattled Ukrainians and anti-war Russians are attempting to practice privacy and quiet communication—necessary virtues for a resistance movement. Social media and their attractions may have allowed us to forget just how important these ways of connecting have always been for any struggle. But if this war is returning us to many historical truths—most of which we hoped to have left on the ash heap—this one at least points toward the tools needed to put up a lasting fight.
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