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Tolerating lies on Telegram could protect the truth

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By Parmy Olson

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In the past month, when the Kremlin’s bloody invasion of Ukraine shook the world, online platforms where Russians could see the truth about the war were shut down one by one. Facebook and Instagram were banned under the law of “extremism” From Russia; TikTok has suspended video sharing and YouTube is about to shut down.

Only one global publishing platform** is still standing: Telegrama messaging app that has morphed more into a streaming service, where a series of “channels” with millions of subscribers spouts the truth, as well as the lies, about the conflict in Ukraine. The app continues to run without any apparent interference from Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the reason is likely to be irritating to anyone who supports strict controls on misleading content: Telegram does absolutely nothing against fake news.

Telegram prohibits spam, scams, violence, and pornography in its terms of service, and it does so fairly lightly. It has hundreds of content moderators compared to more than 15,000 on Facebook. But it has no rules against disinformation, which means Telegram can remain a valuable channel for Putin to reach the app’s more than 50 million Russian users with any propaganda he wants (Telegram says it has more than 500 million of active users worldwide).

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The moderators of Telegram they don’t touch popular pro-Kremlin channels like TV news anchor Vladimir Solovyov or Chechen republic leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who have distorted the truth about the war for millions of subscribers, just as Telegram let misinformation about the war flourish. COVID and QAnon conspiracy theories in other channels on the app. The company’s approach has been to occasionally promote expert advice on things like vaccines.

We believe that disseminating verified information is much more important” to remove or flag misleading information, a spokesman said.

That stance adds to an already controversial reputation for embracing extremism and sets it apart from Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and YouTube, which tend to label, classify or remove misleading posts.

Facebook, which belongs to Meta Platforms Inc., has shut down entire networks of accounts spreading Russian disinformation, while ByteDance Ltd.’s TikTok has tagged users connected to Russian state media. Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube has banned a channel operated by the Russian Defense Ministry, a move that may have led to YouTube’s imminent demise.

Telegram he hasn’t done any of that. The founder Pavel Durov, 38, describes himself as a libertarian with principles of free speech, cultivated from growing up in the Soviet Union, where censorship was the norm. Since around 2014, when the Kremlin took over a popular social network he founded, durov has lived outside the country and is now based in Dubai.

It’s unclear exactly why the Kremlin has left Telegram alone, but its ability to use the app as its own megaphone without interference, and its fight to ban the app in the past, probably had something to do with it.

In my 20 years running discussion platforms, I’ve noticed that conspiracy theories only get stronger every time moderators take down their content.“, said durov on his official channel last year. “Rather than put an end to misconceptions, censorship often makes it more difficult to combat them. For this reason, spreading the truth will always be a more efficient strategy than engaging in censorship.”.

durov, which owns 100% of Telegram, has been flexible in its principles under some legal pressure. For example, the app adhered to EU orders to ban Russian state broadcasters RT and Sputnik, and agreed to earlier Kremlin demands to remove some of the “extremist propaganda.

But most of the government’s requests have been ignored as part of a proud tradition, including now the Kremlin’s “fake news” law that bars online platforms from hosting content that references “invasion” wave “war” in Ukraine.

This puts Durov on a tightrope of morality and practice. He knows that touching state propaganda on his app could lead to an outright ban in Russia, leaving the country’s citizens even more in the dark. And while Telegram has survived a Russian ban before (the Kremlin tried to block the app in 2018 and its number of users more than doubled), Putin could do something more radical to keep the ban up this time, like block all foreign internet traffic in Russia.

Users of Telegram they could also be more vulnerable to state surveillance at a time when Moscow is cracking down on dissent. Comments in Telegram groups and channels don’t have the same kind of strong encryption found in messaging apps like WhatsApp and Signal.

Still, if the Russian public can access information on Telegram that they might not otherwise get, that could help move the country toward a popular backlash that could destabilize Putin’s position, especially if significant opposition perhaps bubbles up in Moscow. or if, say, the Belarusian Army has doubts about the sabotage of the railway lines and needs a reason to withdraw.

It turns out that the anti-Kremlin channels in Telegram have increased since the beginning of the war. Subscribers to independent news publications Novaya Gazetta and Meduza more than doubled to 1.2 million and half a million subscribers, respectively, on the app.

Once the newspapers closed [independientes]switched to personal Telegram channelssays Sergei, a doctor who fled Russia last month and asked not to use his last name. Follow channels on Telegram such as that of Alexei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of the Echo of Moscow radio station, which has since closed. “it is very convenient”, he adds.

Of the 10 channels of Telegram that have gained the most subscribers in the last month, six are independent media organizations or linked to people who publish critical opinions about the war, according to Telemetrio, a website that tracks channel statistics on Telegram. They include Varlamov News and Yury Dud, a popular Russian YouTuber who has outspokenly condemned the invasion of Ukraine.

Dud’s followers on Telegram have doubled in the last month to 1.3 million, making the channel one of the fastest growing on the app. Although pro-Kremlin names also have millions of followers, independent or opposition profiles seem to make up the majority of the top channels.

Telegram has also become one of the main ways Ukrainians post videos, photos and graphic accounts of the war to the rest of the world. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky posts daily updates and videos to his 1.5 million subscribers on the app.

It is the number one source of information on the ground coming from Ukraine in the combat zone”, it says kevin rothrockpublisher of the independent Russian news site Meduza. “If you have seen video accounts showing air strikes, most of those videos are on Telegram”.

Addressing misinformation online is a good thing, and social media companies should do more to stop the spread of lies that undermine the democratic process. But the avalanche of encouraging activity in Telegram exposes an uncomfortable reality in this conflict: a hands-off approach to lies is likely protecting a crucial access to the truth for the Russians. For now, that’s a price worth paying.

** WhatsApp is still available in Russia and is widely used, but it functions as a system for chatting between individuals or groups, not as a broadcaster. WhatsApp limits groups in the app to 256 people and also has strict limits on message forwarding, an effort to curb the spread of fake news.

Source: Gestion

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