On Telegram, amateur internet soldiers are trying to rally Russian public opinion without guarantees

For 84 days, Kirillo, 21, has been juggling his daily life. Ukrainian student of master’s degree at Sciences po Paris by day and electronic soldier by night. From the beginning of the war between Russia and his country, the young man with youthful and impeccable French features joined the army of digital fighters coordinated from Kyiv. His favorite battlefield? Telegram encrypted messages. The “Ukraine NOW” group created on this network was published and used by the Ukrainian authorities during the Covid-19 epidemic, as of February 24, as one of the main communication channels of the government.

Since then, this newsfeed, which has more than 1 million subscribers and blends self-help initiatives, news from the front and official press releases, has grown. “On February 29, we launched the French channel Ukraine NOW with one of my friends,” Kyrylo explains. At the same time an English version was born. The goal is simple: to disseminate the Ukrainian account of the ongoing conflict to the wider public. The group, run by the student, relies on a network of volunteers to translate and disseminate information from Ukrainian sources and media into French. But the audience settled down — just under 7,600 subscribers — and “very quickly, we realized that Russian propaganda was not having much of an impact on French netizens,” Kirillo notes.

Russian language channel to counter propaganda

Regarding the team of the Minister of Digital Transformation, the millennial Mikhailo Fedorov, a kind of general head of the Ukrainian Digital Army, Kirillo and his friend decided to launch a Russian-speaking version of Ukraine now. In Russia, Telegram is one of the few sources of information that the authorities have not blocked. The idea was to attack the Russian propaganda on its own channel, ”so called the young director of the channel. According to data transmitted to the New York Times on April 16 by the data analysis company Sensor Tower, the Telegram application was the most downloaded (4.4 million downloads) in Russia since the beginning of the war.

Get out the flop at VOSTFR, this time, the Russian-speaking franchise for Ukraine is now operational and brings together more than 848,000 people. For Kyrylo and his friend, managing the page has become a job in itself. “We divided time slots for the channel feed. I created an information verification format as well. I am subscribed to several Russian media and I review some data with other sources, Ukrainian or international,” develops the marketing student. Unlike the national channel, which mainly targets Ukrainians, the Russian version publishes content likely to interest their neighbors. The consequences of the strike on the origin of the sinking of the Russian ship “Moskva” in the Black Sea, for example, was the subject of numerous publications, the channel widely relaying the testimonies of the families of sailors without news of their loved ones.

impossible conversation

The challenge to the Ukrainian government is as strategic as the military maneuvers on the ground, asserts Franco-Ukrainian researcher Valentina Dimitrova. The country does not have an international news channel like France 24 or Russia Today – even if they were recently suspended in EU countries. Thus, its continuous transmission of information goes through social networks. Telegram is widely used by Russians, it is an essential channel of expression to counter misinformation, ”developed the lecturer in Information and Communication Sciences at the University of Lyon 3.

Still, it’s hard to gauge the group’s true impact, Kirillo admits. The site opened when Ukraine Now Russia was launched, and the team quickly closed the comments. “Some of the content was the subject of thousands of messages formatted by pro-Russian bots (bots). Discussion became impossible. We used several technical tools to try to filter it, but it was not enough,” the student regrets.

Team change

The team also has little quantitative data about the profile of subscribers who follow the channel. “We know that 94% of our subscribers are using the app from a Russian-language interface, but we don’t have anything about their geographical location. And even if Telegram was going to provide that kind of data, we know the vast majority of Russians are using VPNs so it wouldn’t be relevant, “

Indicating the importance that the Ukrainian authorities attach to this group, a professional team of the Ministry of Digital Transformation took over the channel this week. “Even if we are considered fighters on the media front, we do it on a voluntary basis for several months in parallel with our work or studies. There, the people who will move the channel will be really specialists in this field,” salutes Kyrylo.

Analysis of a Russian defense expert, Thursday, expressed his serious doubts about the victory of his country’s army over the channel Russian 1 It was transmitted to hundreds of thousands of Telegram subscribers of the group. Within a few hours, the post had already been viewed by 49,000 people.

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