Chat platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram have avoided being blocked by Russia – unlike some of the world’s biggest social networks – in a tenuous tolerance that experts say could come to an abrupt end.
Years of tension between Moscow and US-based Facebook and Twitter erupted into confrontation after the invasion of Ukraine, with the platforms targeting state-linked media and then finding themselves restricted in Russia.
YouTube, which has banned channels linked to Russian state media globally, was also threatened Friday with being blocked after Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor accused site owner Google of being ” anti-Russian”.
Messaging apps, however, have gotten a pass so far, in part because Meta-owned WhatsApp is less suited to mass communication, while Telegram’s ability to deliver information to large groups made it useful for both the independent media and the Kremlin.
“I think Russia is unlikely to ban Telegram because they lack so many platforms they can operate on,” said Princeton University postdoctoral researcher Sergey Sanovich, who noted that in 2020 , authorities had halted efforts to block the service.
Telegram, criticized for its lax content control policy, offers Russian authorities a forum to promote narratives favorable to their internationally condemned war.
Russia still operates accounts on platforms like Facebook, despite blocking the service at home, but this week the Silicon Valley giant removed posts from Moscow pages that contained misinformation about its deadly offensive.
Russia’s go-to platform
Telegram has become a vital exchange of wartime information, its growth accelerating after the Kremlin’s latest crackdown on independent media and the lockdown of apps such as Facebook and Instagram.
On average, 2.5 million new users joined Telegram daily in the past three weeks, the company said, a jump of around 25% from previous weeks.
According to daily figures provided by Telegram, the app has been downloaded more than 150 million times since the start of the year, with the official figure of half a billion active users dating back to January 2021.
Telegram benefited from the image of its creators, the brothers Pavel and Nikolai Durov, Russian citizens who left their country of origin in 2014.
Under pressure from the authorities, Nikolai sold his stake in VK, which he had created, rather than hand over the activists’ personal data to the government.
“Telegram is now a very nice revenge story, and we all love a good revenge story,” said Enrique Dans, a professor specializing in information systems at IE Business School in Madrid.
“Will this be enough to make Telegram the world’s favorite messaging app? That’s a lot to say. The application still has a lot to demonstrate in areas such as security, encryption and business model,” he added.
“Declaring War on YouTube”
But experts pointed to a risk to Telegram and its users due to a lack of end-to-end encryption by default that potentially leaves the company vulnerable to government pressure to hand over information.
Alp Toker, director of web monitoring group NetBlocks, noted that WhatsApp has firewalls in place that provide insulation against this kind of pressure.
“By improving their security and adopting end-to-end encryption technology, they have essentially protected their own platform from legal risks and potential content access requests,” Toker added.
WhatsApp’s use for one-on-one or group chats makes it less of a target for Russian authorities at the moment, but that could change if it becomes known as a key platform for protests against the coronavirus. war.
“Primarily, Roskomnadzor is very concerned about channels, news, and ways to get information out to large numbers of people, for which WhatsApp and the like are less good,” said Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at Electronic Frontier Foundation.
But Toker noted that the issue has not yet reached a boiling point for authorities, in part because it was social media platforms, many of which are now blocked, that have played a key role in organizing.
“Like those [platforms] disappear, the dynamics could change and messaging apps could become the next target,” he added.
WhatsApp was one of the most popular apps in Russia in 2021, with some 67 million users, or around 65% of the country’s internet users, far ahead of TikTok, Russian social media platform VK and even Telegram, the data shows. from eMarketer.
But YouTube, with 76 million viewers in 2021, attracted more Russians than any of the above platforms, according to the data.
Its popularity was due in part to the access it provided to entertainment for ordinary Russians, who in turn provided an audience for politicians and the government seeking their attention.
Sanovich, the Princeton researcher, said the platform simply got on the wrong side of authorities.
“They have a hard time controlling YouTube in terms of censorship and YouTube’s recent moves have made it less valuable as a place for foreign propaganda,” he noted.
The lack of a local alternative of sufficient quality has also been a complicating factor for the government when deciding what to do with YouTube.
Toker, the head of NetBlocks, warned that blocking YouTube would mean taking on Google, with its suite of services like Gmail.
“Declaring war on YouTube effectively means declaring war on the rest of the company,” he noted. “Google is a major force in the business world and an important link to the outside world.”