Coordinated Telegram channels aggregate anti-Ukrainian news from around the globe
Network promotes anti-Ukrainian news from multiple countries while heavily amplifying content from a Telegram channel allegedly affiliated with Yevgeny Prigozhin’s RIA FAN news agency
BANNER: Highlights from a bubble chart showing the volume of each channel’s posts forwarded by other channels in the network. The bigger a bubble is, the more messages were forwarded from the given channel by the other eighteen channels. (Source: DFRLab via Telegram API and Flourish)
The DFRLab identified a network of at least nineteen Russian-language Telegram channels that aggregate news stories from over twenty countries, frequently publishing anti-Ukrainian, pro-Russian, and anti-Western local news stories from various regions and countries.
Russian use of Telegram skyrocketed after the Kremlin restricted access to Western mainstream social media platforms and banned independent media outlets in the country. According to Russian media research company Mediascope, the number of active Telegram users in Russia grew from 25.5 million in January 2022 to almost 48.8 million in January 2023, encompassing approximately 40 percent of all internet users in Russia.
Given the rising popularity of the messaging app in Russia, pro-Kremlin actors are trying to leverage Telegram to reach millions of Russian citizens with pro-government messages. As the DFRLab reported in 2022, pro-Kremlin content has been more prevalent on Telegram in Russia than content from channels critical of Kremlin.
The channels identified by the DFRLab publish content in Russian, which suggests that they primarily target domestic audiences. It seems that the goal of these channels is to aggregate news stories from multiple countries that would present Ukraine and the West in a negative light. These channels actively amplify each other by forwarding or linking to each other’s posts.
While the groups appear to have different administrators, the available evidence indicates cooperation between them. Almost all of the Telegram channels in this network have names indicating their country of focus, such as “Lithuanian Auditor,” “Istanbul wolf,” “Swedish Carlson,” “German Eagle,” “Warsaw Mermaid,” or “Tasmanian devil.” They regularly publish posts about local developments from their respective focus countries; the news stories are picked selectively and frequently convey anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western sentiments. The posts are all written in a similar style in Russian across all of the channels, and, in a vast majority of cases, their text starts with an emoji flag of the country at the center of the story. The identified channels also actively amplify content from a Telegram channel seemingly connected to RIA FAN, the Russian Federal News Agency.
These channels published a range of anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western content. Some amplified anti-government protests in the Netherlands, during which protesters demanded that the government stop supporting Ukraine’s armed forces. One post amplified by these channels claimed that Albanian fighters from the terrorist group Tahrir Al-Sham were planning to fight on the Ukrainian side against Russia; another referred to Ukrainians as “banderites,” a term used by pro-Kremlin actors to disparage Ukrainians as far-right nationalists. Apart from Ukraine, the Telegram channels also amplified anti-Western narratives, such as saying that the United States was spying on Turkey; that the West was artificially stirring up the Taiwan crisis; and that the US ambassador in Norway had unfairly compared Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler. Even though these Telegram channels sometimes quote reputable articles in their posts, they also selectively amplify only those stories that would discredit Ukraine and the West.
To analyze the channels, the DFRLab collected more than 50,000 Telegram messages posted between March 2020 and April 2023. In this time period, the channel Американскiй номеръ (“American number”) posted the most, with almost 7,000 messages. Next, Варшавская русалка (“Warsaw Mermaid”) posted more than 5,700 messages. The posting rate across all channels increased sharply starting in the first quarter of 2022. The highest increase in published posts was registered in February 2022, the same month that Russia first invaded Ukraine, when the channels published 157 percent more posts than the prior month.
Potential coordination between Telegram channels
Some of identified Telegram channels publish digests of news stories from various regions and link to multiple posts from other channels of the network.
One such digest, published by the channel Sex, Cartels, Frida Kahlo (handle “sex_drugs_kahlo”), consisted of around thirty news stories, representing a roundup of posts published by eight other channels from the network. This specific digest categorized news stories by regions and did not include links to posts published by any other channels outside of this network.
Another commonality between the channels is their similar descriptions, which routinely listed the country of focus, the type of content featured, and a way for readers to provide feedback. The examples below represent English translations of channel descriptions representing Lithuania, Sweden, France, and the United Kingdom respectively:
Promptly | Reliably | in detail
Feedback – @litovskyrevisor_bot
About politics and life in Sweden.
Main events, reviews, comments.
For suggestions and feedback:
Welcome to the channel about the news and life of French-speaking countries!
For feedback – @NapoleonFR_bot
Welcome to the UK political news channel!
Feedback – @oldGBRBot
Available evidence indicated that at least two of the Telegram channels have common administrators. In March 2023, the Voice of Northern Seas channel (handle “VoiceNorthSea”) posted that they had launched a new channel called Swedish Carlson (“schwedkarlson”). The description for the Voice of the Norwegian Fjords channel (“norgerussisk”) contains a link to the Telegram account for Pavel Anisimov, Senior Lecturer for the Humanities at Russian State University. Anisimov’s Telegram account says that he is the author of Voice of the Norwegian Fjords channel.
Beyond those channels with overlapping administrators, most of them appear to be run by different people, but demonstrated interconnectedness through how they interacted with each other. They congratulated each other when reaching milestones in audience growth, and admins of the channels frequently referred to admins of other channels in the network as “colleagues.” Some of the channels also stated that they cooperate with other channels in the network and amplify each other’s publications. They also frequently forwarded posts from each other, especially when their posts mentioned multiple regions or countries. For instance, the channel Balkan Gossip Girl (handle “balkanossiper”) published posts related to relations between the Balkan countries on the one hand and Denmark, Turkey, Poland, and China on the other; channels focusing on these four countries, respectively, then forwarded any related Balkan Gossip Girl posts. Along similar lines, when the “Old Britain” channel published a post about the United Kingdom’s relationships with other countries, the posts were subsequently forwarded by respective country-specific channels in the network.
Even though the channels each focus on an individual country, they forwarded posts from the other channels in the network, even when they were not geographically related. The DFRLab examined the frequency at which the channels forwarded posts from each other. Balkan Gossip Girl’s posts were the most forwarded, with the other eighteen channels forwarding its posts on at least least 311 occasions. This was followed by Sex, Cartels, Frida Kahlo (215 forwarded posts) and Severyanochka (184 forwarded posts).
The channels also cited each other’s posts using hyperlinks. For instance, posts published by Warsaw Mermaid (“pl_syrenka”) were linked in posts on the other eighteen channels over 140 times, while posts published by Balkan Gossip Girl were linked to over 130 times.
Possible connections with well-established pro-Kremlin actors
While the channels amplified each other’s posts through forwarding and linking to each other, they reserved their highest individual volume for posts from the Russian Telegram channel Rybar, which covers Russia’s military activities. Since March 2020, these channels forwarded Rybar’s posts 607 times, linked to its 429 times, and, on top of this, linked to Rybar’s external website 119 times in their posts.
At least one channel from the network, Warsaw Mermaid, also directly celebrated Rybar reaching a subscriber milestone (30,000) in one of its posts. Conversely, Rybar recommends its subscribers follow some of channels identified by the DFRLab. According to an investigation conducted by Russian independent media outlet The Bell, the founders of Rybar allegedly received money from Russian oligarch and Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin to run a column on Russian Federal News Agency (RIA FAN) website. RIA FAN is part of the Patriot Media Group, of which Prigozhin is the head of Board of Trustees. Thus, the high amplification rate of Rybar content by the identified nineteen channels indicated a possible connection between them. Moreover, the DFRLab examined the most frequently linked media outlets in posts published by the identified Telegram channels and found that RIA FAN website itself was the sixth most frequently linked media outlet in their posts. The appearance of RIA FAN among the top ten most-linked media outlets indicated that, even though the channels predominantly published news stories not related with Russia, they still amplified reporting of international news by pro-Kremlin or Kremlin-controlled sources. The fourth most frequently linked website in the same list was Russian content creation platform Dzen.ru, run by Yandex.
In analyzing the nineteen Telegram channels that aggregate news from different countries, the DFRLab found multiple instances where the channels amplified each other’s content and they exhibit several signs of coordination. It seems that the channels primarily target a Russian audience, offering them selective coverage of international news from multiple regions and countries in an attempt to portray Russia’s perceived opponents in a negative light on a global scale. The possibility that these channels are managed by RIA FAN or those behind the Rybar Telegram channel warrants further investigation.
Cite this case study:
Givi Gigitashvili and Esteban Ponce de León, “Coordinated Telegram channels aggregate anti-Ukrainian news from around the globe,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), https://dfrlab.org/2023/06/01/coordinated-telegram-channels-aggregate-anti-ukrainian-news-from-around-the-globe.