The Russian government is trying to control the narrative of its invasion of Ukraine. One place where his messages can either prevail without fact-checking, or be thoroughly debunked and refuted, is on encrypted messaging apps like Meta-owned Telegram and WhatsApp.
Social media companies like Twitter and Meta have implemented additional measures to counter President Putin’s propaganda machine. Russia relies on state-affiliated agencies such as RT, Sputnik, TASS and others to share the Russian government’s version of events. Recently, Twitter rolled out warning labels with tweets sharing links of these websites publicizing their affiliation with the Russian state. Meta has blocked links entirely in Europe.
But these public channels are only one way of disseminating information. In 2021, a New York University study found that Donald Trump tweets flagged by Twitter were proliferating on other social networks.
“Tweets spread to other platforms despite having labels on them,” said NYU professor Joshua Tucker, an expert in Russian studies, social media and disinformation. Public channels where it is possible to moderate content are not, he said, “the only place where people go to broadcast information”.
According to Statista, the most popular messaging app in Russia is WhatsApp. But Tucker, along with Russian history professor Ian Garner, who has analyzed the spread of propaganda on Russian social media, say Telegram has been the dominant messaging platform amid the conflict. Telegram is a hybrid platform that offers private one-on-one and group chats (with up to 200,000 members), as well as “channels” that the channel owner can stream to, or that can function more like a forum.
Messages on WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram are encrypted, which means that even the platforms themselves cannot see what users are sending to each other (except in the case of public Telegram channels). Encryption is great for privacy. But in the past, these platforms have allowed the dissemination of false information. And because platforms are unable to moderate content, tackling fake news has required platform functionality changes and dedicated campaigns.
WhatsApp has deployed one of these campaigns to counter propaganda or help general confusion that may spread across its platform. WhatsApp manager Will Cathcart tweeted on Tuesday that Ukraine’s emergency services have launched a helpline to provide people with quality information about the situation.
While these campaigns are important, it’s still difficult to understand – let alone combat – misinformation about encrypted messaging apps.
“It’s really hard to know what’s going on on these platforms,” Tucker said.
In the past, misinformation has spread on WhatsApp through individual messages and groups (which have a maximum size of 256 members). WhatsApp’s “forwarding” feature and large groups allowed fake news to spread quickly, unrelated to an original source. WhatsApp restricted the feature after causing real-world consequences in India and Brazil.
But transmitting the harmful content did not happen by accident. Kiran Garimella, who has studied WhatsApp’s role in spreading disinformation in India that has led to mob violence, said producing fake news usually requires “bad actors” to build news networks . While Tucker noted that the Western understanding of Russia before the conflict was that it had a “sophisticated propaganda machine,” it’s unclear if Russia developed such networks on WhatsApp.
Even if so, experts find that encrypted messaging — and Telegram in particular — served an incredibly important purpose: to amplify counter-propaganda, the voices of Russian protesters, and the experiences of Ukrainians.
“Because the government cannot install its own moderators and directly control censorship of the two platforms, we find that this is really a free space for Russians to discuss anything they want about the war” , Garner said. “The fact that these discussions are happening, and are happening in a fairly open and yet anonymous way to individual users, means the government has a problem on its hands.”
Garner cites several Russian-language Telegram channels with over a million subscribers that are critical of government assurances that all is well in Russia. The Russian government runs Telegram channels for its state-affiliated media, such as Sputnik. But of the hundreds of thousands of subscribers to these channels, it’s unclear how many are real people and how many are bots. In the past, Tucker noted, Russia has relied heavily on bots to amplify its messages and increase the apparent popularity of its posts.
Just because it’s harder to monitor and moderate activity on these platforms doesn’t mean they should be ignored. In fact, understanding the flow of information will only become more crucial as the information warfare that accompanies warfare on the ground intensifies.
“We’re in the area where I think disinformation is going to be an integral part of military strategy,” Tucker said. Misinformation will be able to spread at lightning speed, but so will the people on messaging platforms who can fight it.
“It’s going to cut both ways,” Tucker said.