Why Pavel Durov’s messenger is so popular and how safe it is
On February 24, Telegram in Ukraine began a period of insane popularity. In the first days, it was Telegram channels, both personal and official or journalistic, that switched to round-the-clock operation and became a source of operational information for Ukrainians. And not only for them – in Russia there is also a surge of interest in this platform. Let’s try to understand what exactly is the phenomenon of Telegram during the war and whether Pavel Durov’s product fascination carries risks for both the state and ordinary users.
Not a crisis, but an opportunity
In Ukraine, with the start of a full-scale war, the Telegram became one of the main sources of news. According to Kantar Ukraine, in mid-March this year, Ukrainians most often watched the official Telegram channels for information – this was done by 57% of respondents. And news Telegram channels took fourth place with a share of 37%.
In addition to the fact that Telegram has become a source of information for Ukrainians, this messenger is also increasingly used by Ukrainians. According to Sensor Tower, a mobile analytics company, the number of Telegram and Signal downloads has grown significantly since the start of the full-scale invasion, with Telegram’s popularity growing by almost 90% in the first month of the war.
In Russia, the popularity of Telegram as a source of news is also growing. At the same time, in March, according to a study by mobile operator Megafon, Telegram surpassed WhatsApp in popularity. And its share in total messenger traffic increased from 48% to 63%. The comparison of these two platforms in this context is not very correct, because the authors of the study themselves claim that the reasons for such a surge of interest in the project are at least two. The first – Telegram became a source of news about the war in Ukraine, and the second – users switched to Telegram against the background of blocking other social platforms in Russia. An additional argument for the hypothesis that Telegram is a means of obtaining content, was the data of the same study – on average, one user spends on the service about 101 megabytes of traffic, compared to the figure of 26 megabytes for WhatsApp.
Messenger and content platform
Telegram as a project offers users the possibility of two products at once. On the one hand, it is a messenger that declares its security (although this statement is ambiguous), on the other hand, it is a platform for content distribution. The second function is implemented through Telegram-channels – special accounts to which you can subscribe and receive their content through a client application for desktop or mobile device or through a web interface (through a browser).
The war became a real opportunity for Telegram as a platform for content distribution to attract an audience. Telegram’s popularity as a messenger is closely linked to the network effect. The more people use this product, the more users will choose it in the future. You can, for example, be a follower of privacy and use only Signal or Threema, but if the working communication is on Facebook, and relatives use Viber, you will either have to install and use these messengers, or drop out of communication or look for alternatives. If for personal communication you can theoretically find a replacement, then for business communication it is more difficult. Telegram was founded by its founders as a secure messenger. This was in 2013-2014, when the world had already met with the revelations of Edward Snowden. This is why society has a demand for secure communication. Later, when Telegram became a content distribution platform, it already had a critical user base that was happy to welcome new product features.
Telegram bots should be mentioned separately. Their simple creation and programming allowed to automate many processes, first of all, for business. Over time, they began to be used by government agencies. If information exchange or consulting can be automated, then Telegram bots have become an ideal tool for this.
All these reasons made Telegram a unique platform with exceptional features that became especially necessary during the war. The telegram bot will sound an air alarm even where sirens are not heard. Telegram-bot transmitted information about the movement of enemy equipment made Ukrainian spies, Telegram-channels helped volunteers coordinate their work, refugees find places to spend the night or learn about the peculiarities of a particular country and even search for people who disappeared during the war.
What about money and special services?
This popularity of Telegram in Ukraine and the transformation of this platform into one of the most important digital tools of this war makes us take a new look at the company-developer Telegram, its founder and the history of its activities.
The Telegram was created by Pavel Durov, the founder of the popular Russian social network VKontakte. Durov came up with the Telegram when he realized that he did not have reliable secure communication tools. The team of developers started working on the creation of Telegram when Durov owned VKontakte in 2012-2013. But then he had to face claims from Russian security forces, including about Ukrainian Euromaidan participants and demands to block content related to the events. During 2013 and 2014, other shareholders of VKontakte made a number of agreements, as a result of which Durov lost his main stake in the company, in December 2013 he sold part of the shares to other investors, in September 2014 Mail.Ru Group bought the remaining shares and became the sole owner of the social network. Instead, Durov began to develop Telegram, as if at his own expense. To distance himself from the Russian government, Pavlo moved abroad in 2014. In 2021, he received the citizenship of the United Arab Emirates and France.
However, the creation and maintenance of a project such as Telegram requires large financial costs. It was not until the end of 2021 that Telegram started talking about the first advertisements, although advertising is usually the traditional tool for monetizing such projects. Who financed Telegram until then and where the money for the product came from – this question has always been relevant for Telegram. In 2018, Telegram tried to issue its own cryptocurrency Gram and conduct an initial coin offer (ICO), but this idea was not very successful, despite the fact that investors literally formed a queue of people willing to invest in Telegram. A US court has suspended the ICO procedure and later forced Durov to return the money to investors. In early 2021, Telegram raised $ 1 billion by placing bonds with Russian banks. This has raised many questions about who bought these bonds, especially given that the placement was organized by VTB Capital and Aton and possibly Alfa Capital. For many experts, the event was proof of Telegram’s ties to the Russian authorities.
Telegram’s relations with the Russian authorities deserve special mention. Telegram’s long war with Roskomnadzor, the main censor of Runet, lasted several years. Russian authorities tried to block Telegram, but the project found an opportunity to work in Russia. This lasted for more than two years, until it stopped – Russian government agencies, including the same Roskomnadzor began to launch their channels in the Telegram. One of the official reasons for the termination of claims to Telegram was the agreement of the service administration to transfer personal data of users in response to requests from special services. Another signal of warming relations between the Russian authorities and Telegram was the removal of the bot “Smart Voting” – a project by Alexei Navalny, designed for the last election in the country.
From time to time, reports began to appear in the media about the existence of a backdoor (secret access to the product), thanks to which special services could access the data of service users. It allegedly became a payment for Telegram’s opportunity to work in Russia.
Security and war
With the start of the war and the massive blockade of foreign social services in Russia, the question arose as to whether Telegram would continue to operate in that country. Especially considering that through the Telegram, Russians could find out what they were not told on television. Although Roskomnadzor has from time to time complained about Telegram, the service in the country is working successfully and does not seem to suffer the fate of Facebook or Twitter. And this involuntarily causes concern among Ukrainians, especially given the popularity of Telegram and its use in various aspects.
Telegram security can be considered in at least two contexts – as a tool for personal communication (or collective – in the case of Telegram for group chats), ie Telegram as a messenger, and as a platform for content distribution. As for the second area of use of Telegram, it currently has no competitors – neither in terms of speed nor ease of dissemination of information. The main thing is that the channel administrators provide basic security rules – two-factor authorization, verification of connected devices. However, we should not forget that the Telegram was used to spread the pro-Russian narrative, not only before the war, but also with the beginning of a full-scale invasion. Pro-Russian channels, which the National Security and Defense Council has repeatedly reported, continue to work for the enemy and no one seems to be going to block them.
At the same time, Telegram as a messenger poses serious threats to its users. Closing the backend (server part), storing data on the server and using end-to-end encryption not for all dialogs, but only for secret chats – all this negates all statements of the Telegram team about its security.
Given the background of the founder of Telegram and his non-transparent relationship with the Russian authorities, you will involuntarily think about the existence of an alternative to this platform. It is currently difficult to find such a convenient and easy to use. It may eventually become WhatsApp channels (communities) that the company began testing a few months ago.