Telegram bans Russian state media after pressure from Europe – POLITICO
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok all removed Russian RT – and its English, Spanish, French and German channels – from their platforms after the European Union imposed sanctions on the Kremlin-backed media network.
But these organizations, which spread Russian lies and talking points about the war in Ukraine, are alive and well on Telegram, the encrypted messenger, even after the company said it blocked them in the 27-nation bloc on Friday. .
European sanctions require RT to be removed from TV broadcasts, video-sharing platforms, internet service providers and a litany of other digital networks in a bid to prevent the lies peddled by Moscow from reaching a large audience, mostly online. But on Telegram, these outlets still have a massive following.
RT’s multi-language outlets have collectively garnered an audience of over one million subscribers through their Telegram channels which are still available across the EU. Some outlets have seen double-digit increases in subscribers since the start of the war in Ukraine, based on POLITICO’s analysis of those networks. Disinformation experts also say Western far-right groups and conspiracy theorists have used Kremlin-backed disinformation to undermine Western support for Ukraine.
On RT France, the media wondered how the European economy would survive after imposing sanctions on Russia. On RT Deutsch, Vladimir Putin’s invasion was reframed to falsely claim it was aimed at “denazifying” the Ukrainian military. On RT en Español, Kiev forces have been accused of carrying out atrocities against civilians in the country’s two separatist “republics”, Lugansk and Donetsk. Similar lies were also regularly shared, both in English and Russian, on official RT Telegram channels with hundreds of thousands of followers. Telegram removed access to these channels, within the EU, on Friday after POLITICO published this article.
“The rules are clear. There can be no circumvention,” said Věra Jourová, European Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency, in response to POLITICO’s written questions, adding that it was up to member countries to take action against those who had not complied with the sanctions. “All players must take responsibility. Firstly, because it is the law in the EU. Secondly, everyone has understood what is at stake now.”
In a letter seen by POLITICO that was sent to the social network on Friday, Jourová and Thierry Breton, the internal markets commissioner, urged Telegram to comply with the bloc’s sanctions and called on the platform to update its terms of service because Telegram could be used “as a means of war propaganda”. Similar calls have been sent to other signatories to the Commission’s voluntary code of conduct on disinformation, including Google and Facebook, as well as Apple, to remind them to comply with EU sanctions, according to an official from the Committee.
“We won’t rest until everyone – including couriers – takes responsibility for countering the Kremlin’s war propaganda,” Breton said in a statement to POLITICO.
France has so far banned the French outpost of RT from operating within its borders, but media regulators have been slow to react to its activities elsewhere.
In a statement, Telegram spokesman Remi Vaughn said the social network has now banned Kremlin-backed media from using its platform inside the EU. “The process is now complete and all RT channels are blocked,” he said. Vaughn said the ban currently only applied to people who had logged into Telegram with an EU-based phone number. Company engineers were expanding this to include people with non-European phone numbers who were physically on the block.
jekyll and hyde
Increasingly the go-to social network for right-wing extremists and jihadists, Telegram took on a Jekyll-and-Hyde persona during the war in Ukraine.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the country’s president, regularly updated his 1.3 million subscribers on the network with emotional messages about efforts to keep Russian forces at bay. Independent Russian media turned to the platform to publish war stories after the Kremlin restricted access to more mainstream platforms. A group of over 300,000 pro-Ukrainian hackers uses Telegram to publicize potential targets in Russia.
Yet Western national security officials and Ukrainian disinformation experts also warn that major Telegram channels – with possible ties to Russian security services – are also spreading doctored wartime footage of alleged Ukrainian atrocities, fake allegations that Zelenskyy fled the country and other lies that go unchecked. a social media platform that prides itself on bucking the trend of increased content moderation.
“These Telegram channels have become a very serious and very effective tool of the disinformation machine,” said Lyubov Tsybulskafounder – and now adviser – of the Ukrainian Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security, which tracks so-called hybrid threats of cyberattacks and disinformation targeting the country.
“Unfortunately, in Ukraine, including the occupied territories, that’s where they are spreading this hatred towards Ukraine and the West,” she added. “The problem with Telegram channels is that you can’t find out who’s behind them.”
Pavel Durov, the Russian founder of Telegram, tried unsuccessfully to wade through the geopolitical crisis.
In a message in Russian to his more than 650,000 subscribers on the network, the 37-year-old said that due to the widespread sharing of “unverified information” about the war, the site was considering the potential removal of Telegram channels – many of them with tens of thousands of subscribers – until the end of hostilities.
But after a backlash from local users, many of whom told him Telegram was an independent source of information about the invasion, Durov backtracked. “I ask you to double check and not believe the data posted on Telegram channels during this difficult time,” he told his followers.
RT’s presence on Telegram – in violation of EU sanctions – has had a ripple effect on Western conspiracy theory and far-right groups, many of whom voice support for Vladimir Putin.
In Germany, where the state-backed outlet was banned in February, RT Deutsch’s content about Ukraine was the most frequently shared material on more than 200 far-right and conspiracy channels since the start of the war. war, according to an analysis by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that tracks online extremism.
In total, more than 1,400 RT Deutsch links racked up 19.5 million views – between November and the end of February – the vast majority of those posts supporting the invasion of Russia or promoting Kremlin talking points on the invasion. The Moscow-linked outlet also called on readers to join its Telegram, in response to both the German and European ban, leading to a 20% increase in the number of members of its channel, which now has more than 110,000 members. .
The outlet has had ties to Germany’s far-right, including the Alternative for Germany political party. Many of the country’s COVID-19 conspiracy theorists and influencers, often followed by Telegram in the hundreds of thousands, have gone from peddling lies about the global coronavirus crisis to debunked claims promoted by the Kremlin.
“These influencers basically reposted Russian propaganda lines about the war,” said Julia Smirnova, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue who conducted the research. “In Germany, Telegram is the central platform for fringe groups, especially conspiratorial and far-right groups. They continued to repost RT content.”
This article has been updated.
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