Telegram use has skyrocketed in Ukraine since the beginning of the war. But the largely unregulated platform comes with pitfalls, a recent study finds.
Russia’s full-scale invasion has radically changed the media landscape in Ukraine. Online media and messenger services have become the most important news sources for millions of Ukrainians.
Telegram provides news in real-time, is easily accessible and does not require high-speed internet. However, as an unregulated platform, it comes with significant risks: Channel owners can choose to remain anonymous, much of the content does not meet journalistic standards, and many channels disseminate questionable information or outright disinformation and propaganda.
In 2022, the independent research center Ukrainian Media and Communication Institute conducted a study on the use of Telegram in Ukraine. The analysis, which was carried out in partnership with DW Akademie, focuses on the top ten non-institutionalized channels and compares them with three channels created by Ukrainian media outlets. Here are some of the trends the study found:
Seven of the top ten channels analyzed were created by anonymous sources which causes issues in countering illegal content and disinformation. Others are run by public figures, journalists, or media outlets. There are a large number of niche channels, including entertainment-oriented ones as well as channels disseminating pro-Russian narratives. After 24 February 2022, Ukrainian authorities started to create their own channels to ensure direct and swift communication with the population.
Results of a survey conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology in 2022
With about three million users, ‘truexanewsua,’ formerly the Kharkiv regional channel, has the largest number of subscribers. The channels created by media outlets have far fewer subscribers, often under half a million. At least 6 out of the 10 channels analyzed in the study bought fake subscribers to artificially boost their channel audience figures. The study references data published by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), according to which 63.3% of Ukrainians started using Telegram for news after 24 February 2022. Before, users peaked at 35.9%.
At the beginning of the war, some channels published up to 750 posts per day aiming to satisfy the audience's need for information. Telegram channels from mainstream media outlets never went beyond 200 posts per day. While the top ten channels added images or videos to almost half of their posts, mainstream media channels used much less image material.
The study found that non-institutionalized channels posted information without verifying it or giving reliable sources. Most channels did not separate news from commentary, and 8 out of 10 channels used emotionally charged rhetoric. In contrast, mainstream media channels generally complied with professional journalistic standards and thoroughly checked information before publication.
Before the full-scale invasion, the top ten channels were mostly in Russian. After 24 February, their language policy began to change, with some starting to publish content also in Ukrainian, responding to a public sentiment. Some Telegram-channels, primarily anonymous ones, use profanity and hostile language, mostly towards Russians.
In focus group discussions, most participants said they do not check information published on Telegram, which may indicate low levels of media literacy. However, some said they generally check information themselves and unsubscribe when unreliable information appears systematically. Though many respondents underlined that there is unreliable or false information on Telegram, only a small part felt strongly negative about it.
The study finds that most non-institutionalized channels shared advertisements without appropriate marking, making it impossible for users to differentiate robust assessments from marketing. The majority of channel operators refused to reveal their advertising policy, and advertising agencies do not publish rates on their websites. The study concludes that advertising deals are subject to personal agreements and are not regulated or taxed.