Pro-Kremlin Telegram channels in Russia outperforming channels critical of Kremlin
Top pro-Kremlin channels gain followers faster, reach more people, and have more subscribers than those critical of the Kremlin.
BANNER: Telegram logo displayed on a phone screen and with the Russian flag on another screen in the background. (Source: Reuters Connect/Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto)
Russian pro-Kremlin Telegram channels have been increasing their subscriber base faster than neutral or critical channels that broadcast reliable information about the war.
As Russia restricted access to Western social media networks and silenced independent media outlets in the country, Telegram has become the platform of choice for many Russians, leading to a significant growth in the number of Telegram users in the country. Telegram’s relatively weak content moderation policy enables the Kremlin and Russian pro-government actors to flood Telegram with false information about Russia’s war on Ukraine.
As Telegram remains accessible in both Russia and Ukraine, it represents one of the few platforms on which people in Russia can get uncensored information about the situation in Ukraine. Recently, inspired by the expanding interest in the platform globally, mainstream Western media outlets including the New York Times and the Guardian launched Telegram channels to deliver news about the war. But the Kremlin is also actively trying to control its narratives about the war on Telegram and, as this DFRLab analysis shows, Russian pro-government actors have created a substantial disinformation ecosystem on the platform.
A study conducted by Megafon, one of largest mobile phone operators in Russia found that Telegram’s popularity in Russia started to grow rapidly following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the end of February. Their analysis suggested that Telegram’s share of total traffic by messaging apps reached 63 percent in the first two weeks of March, up from 48 percent in the first two weeks of February. During the same period, WhatsApp’s share of mobile traffic decreased from 48 percent to 32 percent. Telegram also leads in terms of mobile traffic consumption: an average user in Russia reportedly consumes around 101 megabytes of traffic on Telegram per day. And while Telegram was the main communication platform in fifty-five regions of Russia at the end of 2021, this number has since increased to eight-two regions by the latter half of March 2022. Meanwhile, Tiburon Research surveyed 1,000 people between eighteen and forty-four years old in Russia and found that among those who have used social networks or messengers over the past month, 89 percent used Telegram, followed by VKontakte at 79 percent and Youtube at 73 percent.
The DFRLab used TGStat, which maintains a database of nearly 800,000 Telegram channels, to analyze the top fifty Russian channels in the tool’s News & Mass Media category. We identified the number of subscribers for each channel, subscriber growth from January 1 until April 20, 2022, and the total reach of all posts published by these channels during that time period.
After analyzing the metrics of the top fifty Russian Telegram channels, the DFRLab analyzed each channel’s forty most recent posts prior to April 10, and divided them into three different categories: (1) “pro-Kremlin channels,” which amplify the Kremlin’s messages about the war in Ukraine and spread false information; (2) “critical channels,” which provide trustworthy information about the war in Ukraine and try to critically assess information conveyed by the Kremlin; and (3) “neutral channels,” which offer more straightforward, nonpartisan analysis of the news, in part by avoiding criticism or praise of the Kremlin as well as not amplifying their narratives about the war. The final category also includes channels that post apolitical or tabloid content.
Most viewed Russian posts on Telegram
The DFRLab reviewed the fifty most viewed Telegram posts across these channels and found that thirty-eight of them were published by pro-Kremlin channels pushing pro-government messages. Nine posts were published by channels of Russia, and the remaining three posts were published by neutral or tabloid Telegram channels.
The thirty-eight posts from pro-Kremlin channels garnered almost 60 million views and more than 4,450 forwards to other channels from January 1, 2022 until April 13, 2022. They were followed by posts published by channels critical of the Kremlin with over 12 million cumulative views and 458 forwards, while posts from neutral/tabloid channels garnered slightly less than 4 million views and around 150 shares during the same observation window. Each post from pro-Kremlin channels was shared 117 times on average, while posts from critical channels were shared fifty times on average. The above metrics seem to indicate that pro-Kremlin content in Russian is more widely shared and amplified on Telegram than posts from the two other categories.
Size of subscriber base of Telegram channels
The DFRLab examined the fifty largest Russian Telegram channels and found that twenty-five publish pro-Kremlin content, while thirteen publish content critical of the Kremlin and twelve publish neutral or tabloid content. The total number of subscribers of pro-Kremlin channels amounted to almost 18 million users, compared with 7.76 and 7.34 million for the critical and neutral/balanced channels, respectively. In other words, the pro-Kremlin channels have more total subscribers than the other two categories combined.
Subscriber base growth
The DFRLab examined the top fifty Telegram channels with the highest number of new subscribers in 2022 and found that thirty-one of them were pro-Kremlin, with a cumulative growth of over 12 million new subscribers. Eleven channels fell into the critical category, with around 4.7 million new subscribers, and eight were neutral channels with over 3.6 million subscribers. In terms of average growth per channel, the neutral channels actually grew the most, with an average of around 458,000 new subscribers per channel; the critical channels had the second highest average growth, at approximately 428,000 new subscribers per channel, and the pro-Kremlin channels grew the slowest, at around 405,000 new subscribers per channel. However, the thirty-one pro-Kremlin channels in total still garnered more than 4 million more new followers over the same period than the critical and neutral channels combined.
Total reach of Telegram channels
Lastly, the DFRLab examined top fifty Russian Telegram channels by total reach of their posts in 2022 and found that twenty-eight pushed pro-Kremlin content, garnering over 19 billion views in the review period. Twelve out of top fifty were critical of the Kremlin, with cumulative views of around 9.4 billion, while ten neutral channels had a cumulative reach of around 5.8 billion views. On average, critical Telegram channels had the highest reach on average, at around 7.9 million views per channel, while pro-Kremlin channels had around 7.1 million views and neutral channels had around 5.8 million views. However, pro-Kremlin channels still had approximately 4.5 billion more views than the channels in the two other categories put together.
In sum, pro-Kremlin content appears to be generally more prevalent on Telegram in Russia, as channels that push pro-Kremlin content had the highest total numbers across a variety of metrics — views and shares, number of subscribers, growth in subscriber numbers, and reach — than content from critical and neutral channels. When it comes to averages across those same metrics, however, the results are more mixed, with critical and neutral channels performing better in most circumstances.
As Telegram gains more popularity globally, the lopsided distribution of content in favor of pro-Kremlin channels could make more objective reporting on Russia’s war on Ukraine more difficult for the platform’s users to find.
Cite this case study:
Givi Gigitashvili, “Pro-Kremlin Telegram channels in Russia outperforming channels critical of Kremlin,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), May 13, 2022, https://medium.com/dfrlab/pro-kremlin-telegram-channels-in-russia-outperforming-channels-critical-of-russia-f2076ebef3ea.