Before Russia invaded Ukraine, the Russian journalist Farida Rustamova used the Telegram chat app for one purpose: messaging friends.
But as the authorities shut down media outlets that strayed from the official line, including the publications she wrote for, she started posting her articles on Telegram. Her feed there — where she has written about the consolidation of Russia’s elites around President Vladimir V. Putin and the reaction among employees of state-run media to an on-air protest — has already garnered more than 22,000 subscribers.
“This is one of the few channels that are left where you can receive information,” she said in a call over Telegram.
As Russia has silenced independent news media and banned social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, Telegram has become the largest remaining outlet for unrestricted information. Since the war started, it has been the most downloaded app in Russia, with about 4.4 million downloads, according to Sensor Tower, an analytics firm. (There have been 124 million downloads of Telegram in Russia since January 2014, according to Sensor Tower.)
“Telegram is the only place in Russia where people can exchange opinions and information freely, although the Kremlin has worked hard to infiltrate Telegram channels,” said Ilya Shepelin, who used to cover the media for the now-shuttered independent TV channel Rain and has established a blog critical of the war.
After the independent radio station Echo of Moscow was shut down last month, its deputy editor in chief, Tatiana Felgengauer, said, her Telegram audience doubled. And after the Russian authorities blocked access to the popular Russia news site Meduza in early March, its Telegram subscriptions doubled, reaching nearly 1.2 million.
“I get my news there,” said Dmitri Ivanov, who studies computer science at a university in Moscow. He said that he relied on Telegram to view “the same media outlets I trust and the ones whose sites I would read before.”
Opponents of the war use the platform for everything from organizing antiwar protests to sharing media reports from the West. In March, The New York Times launched its own Telegram channel to ensure that readers in the region “can continue to access an accurate account of world events,” the company said in a statement.
But the freedom that has allowed the unfettered exchange of news and opinion has also made Telegram a haven for disinformation, far-right propaganda and hate speech.
Propagandists have their own popular channels — Vladimir Solovyov, the host of a prime time talk show that is a font of anti-Ukraine vitriol every weeknight, has more than 1 million subscribers. Channels in support of Russia’s war, many of them run by unidentified users, proliferate.
State-run media outlets, like Tass and RIA News, also distribute their reports via Telegram.