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Too small for the police, too big to ignore: Telegram is the app that divides Europe

Minutes after Slovakia’s Russian-friendly Prime Minister Robert Fico was shot, social media was awash with conspiracy theories.

The attacker’s wife was a refugee from Ukraine. He was linked to a high-profile government critic. And Fico’s guard was plotting against the Prime Minister.

All these rumors were later refuted by the Slovak authorities. But not before they went viral on Telegram.

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The messaging app has become a key weapon for pro-Kremlin accounts to spread disinformation aimed at undermining support for Ukraine. More recently, Russian intelligence officers have used it to recruit petty criminals to carry out acts of sabotage in European capitals.

These incidents offset Telegram’s main advantage: it is largely inexplicable. That’s what annoys most European officials, who have made the fight against fake news a top priority ahead of June’s continental elections. For all their new powers to regulate information online, they are largely powerless to rein in Telegram.

“Disinformation is spreading openly and completely unchecked via Telegram,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told Bloomberg.

Requests to remove disturbing content often go unanswered, she said: “We know that other Member States have similar problems.”

A typical pro-Russian propaganda campaign relies on a barrage of online techniques. These include social media posts, stories on state media, fabricated news stories designed to mimic the appearance of legitimate websites, and anonymous comments on genuine websites.

Telegram functions as a central hub in that ecosystem, a kind of bridge that propaganda groups use to distribute their content in active social communities, with the aim of amplifying their stories to a wider audience.

“Telegram is popular among various pro-Russian actors, but also among individuals who have been spreading disinformation for a long time because there is almost no content moderation,” said Daniel Milo, former director of the Center for Combating Hybrid Threats in the Slovak Interior. Ministry. “Telegram’s rules are very lax in this regard.”

The EU recently strengthened its powers to tackle illegal and harmful content in a bid to stop malicious actors from spreading disinformation in the run-up to the European elections.

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But when it comes to Telegram, these measures are not very effective: the tools with real bite only apply to platforms with more than 45 million active users in Europe. Telegram, its owners say, has 41 million.

According to Kallas, these figures do not tell the whole story and “the European Commission should carry out an independent evaluation”, she said. The committee did not respond to a request for comment.

Still, Telegram’s figures are below the threshold needed to trigger a series of strict obligations under the EU’s flagship law on digital services, which came into full force in February.

For large platforms, the EU can impose fines of as much as 6% of annual turnover if it finds violations – or ban repeat offenders from the EU. These rules apply, among others, to Facebook from Meta Platforms Inc., YouTube from Alphabet Inc. and TikTok from ByteDance Ltd.

Smaller platforms fall under national agencies where the companies have legal representation. That is Belgium, in the case of Telegram. Still, national authorities have limited powers to take action over the content of the service, a spokesperson for the Belgian Institute for Post and Telecommunications said in an emailed response to questions.

“Calls for violence or property damage are expressly prohibited on Telegram,” a company spokesperson said in response to questions. They added that moderators monitor public areas of the platform to remove content that violates the terms of service.

If Telegram were to be classified as a “very large online platform” under the DSA, it would be required to take measures against the spread of misinformation and implement stricter content moderation protocols, Kallas said. “It would also ensure a level playing field within the internal market, as other platforms have made significant efforts to comply with the Digital Services Act,” the Estonian Prime Minister added.

Key themes of Russia’s disinformation efforts include the war against Ukraine, the conflict in the Middle East, immigration, climate change and the upcoming European Parliament elections, according to an internal EU assessment by Bloomberg.

Across these five topics, the number of items from unverified sources across all platforms more than doubled by early May, compared to less than 20,000 items per day at the start of the year, the assessment found. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied its involvement in disinformation and sabotage operations.

The Kremlin has not always been so receptive to Telegram. A Russian court ordered the app blocked in 2018 for refusing to hand over its encryption keys to security services, although attempts to prevent its use failed. In 2020, Russia’s communications watchdog dropped its attempts to block this. Telegram has also been used by protesters, including in Hong Kong and Iran, to organize and evade surveillance.

Pavel Durov, the founder, owner and CEO, left Russia in 2014 after losing control of his previous company because he refused to hand over the data of Ukrainian protesters to security services. The company, based in Dubai, passed 700 million monthly active users last year.

Doppleganger sites

Nevertheless, in February, France’s foreign disinformation watchdog Viginum found that it had discovered preparations for a large-scale disinformation campaign involving a network of nearly 200 websites in several European countries, and that Telegram content was central to that campaign.

After the assassination attempt in Slovakia, a Telegram channel with nearly 50,000 subscribers shared a long message from a website falsely claiming to be the Daily Telegraph, a prominent British publication.

The text claimed without evidence that pro-Ukrainian forces were responsible for the shooting of Prime Minister Fico. This came at a time when authorities in Slovakia claimed the motive for the incident was still under investigation.

The suspect, identified as 71-year-old Juraj C., later told investigators that he had acted alone and that he was motivated by his opposition to a series of Fico policies, including the decision to end military aid to Ukraine, according to a court document seen by Bloomberg. Fico, who remains hospitalized, was shot four times at close range.

The impersonation of local news media is the work of a disinformation group that researchers have dubbed “Doppelganger,” which is infamous for using Telegram to promote false content claiming to come from mainstream media.

In the same operation, which is the focus of an EU investigation into Meta, cybersecurity firm Recorded Future Inc. used more than 2,000 inauthentic social media accounts. These personas have attempted to undermine confidence in Ukraine’s military efforts by posing as news organizations. , or targeting the German public to weaken trust in their lawmakers. The group has also distributed videos falsely claiming to be from Al Jazeera and EuroNews.

To infiltrate social media discourse, Doppelganger uses tactics that are more sophisticated than simply spreading false information through social media channels.

According to security firm Sekoia, the group uses cheap domain name services that are often hosted on Russian services, a tactic that makes it difficult for Western agencies to take the sites offline. From there, Doppelganger spreads the false information links to Telegram, where the goal is to create user engagement across multiple channels and ultimately go viral elsewhere on social media, with smaller countries especially vulnerable.

“Almost a third of the content on Slovak Telegram accounts comes from or comes directly from various Russian sources,” Milo said, citing a Slovak government investigation. “Telegram plays a key role in spreading Russian stories.”

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