Ukraine’s Telegram Battlefield

How guerilla media operations in the country’s east preceded - and amplified - Russia’s invasion.

Ukraine’s Telegram Battlefield

How guerilla media operations in the country’s east preceded - and amplified - Russia’s invasion.

Donbas Decides (Донбасс решает), a popular pro-separatist Telegram in Eastern Ukraine.
Donbas Decides (Донбасс решает), a popular pro-separatist Telegram in Eastern Ukraine.
Friday, 25 February, 2022

Donbas Decides, a popular pro-separatist Telegram in Eastern Ukraine, usually produces about 40 posts each day. On February 22 and 23, the two days preceding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it published some 200 posts.

Telegram channels dedicated to coverage of the self-proclaimed republics in eastern Ukraine have become a vital tool for spreading disinformation – as well as a rare outlet for independent debate.

Donbas Decides – which more than tripled its audience to around 42,000 over the last two months of Russian military build-up – was particularly active amidst the escalation of tensions.

On February 17, when Russian-backed militias launched a barrage of rocket attacks across the line of control, Donbas Decides launched an anti-Ukrainian disinformation campaign. It reported mass shelling of civilians in Donetsk and Luhansk, acts of sabotage, terrorism and the concentration of heavy military equipment and foreign fighters along the Ukrainian-controlled side of the frontline.

The posts were spread by a chain of other pro-Kremlin channels, with Donbas Decides promoting their posts in return. In the early morning of February 24, when Russia attacked Ukraine from several directions, Donbas Decides bombarded readers with dozens of further posts, this time about Russia’s successful advance and the supposed panic in Ukrainian cities

OSINT specialists, including the Conflict Intelligence Team in Russia, managed to expose some claims as based on fake or staged events. But with dozens of reported incidents and warnings each day, no one appeared capable of reacting to each of them.

This created chaos similar to that in which Russian disinformation thrived in the region in 2014 just after the conflict began. Some residents of Russian-controlled areas of Luhansk and Donetsk took up the offer of evacuation to Russia amid the supposed threat of a Ukrainian attack.

Russian and local media, including Telegram channels, are believed to have exaggerated the number of those who agreed to leave, in order to amplify fear and sow further confusion.

There are no independent media outlets operating in the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk republics. Journalists and entire editorial outfits loyal to Ukraine were forced to leave in 2014, and those who remained were either imprisoned or silenced. In Luhansk, overt opposition disappeared even sooner than in Donetsk.

Until 2018, Facebook and its Russian analogue VK were the main platforms where socially active locals shared, discussed and consumed information. At the time, the single source of more or less authentic information about events in Luhansk was a VK page called The Other Luhansk, apparently administered by local teenagers.

This changed when even the local, pro-Russian, political opposition were silenced by staged elections in both statelets in the autumn of 2018. Ahead of the vote, Moscow removed virtually everyone who was able to compete with its preferred candidates. In 2017, the head of the Luhansk de facto republic had been forced to flee to Russia and in 2018, his Donetsk counterpart was killed by a blast in a city centre cafe.

As the result of the clamp down surrounding the 2018 elections, people gradually migrated to Telegram which has more privacy than other platforms and hence promises more protection.

Indeed Telegram, launched in 2013, initially had a reputation as one of the safest messaging applications. But as it gained popularity, questions started to emerge about its security as well as its lack of transparency and failure to block illegal content.

Three of the most prominent - and interconnected – critical channels had ceased to function by mid-2021, when one of their owners was arrested after several months of attempts to track him down.

By then, Telegram had already become another platform for Russian and separatist propaganda in Luhansk and Donetsk. Donbas Decides, for example, is tied to local factions whose representatives it cites on a regular basis.

Other Donetsk and Luhansk Telegram channels are also experiencing audience growth. Typical Donetsk is one of the most popular channels, posting predominantly user-generated content, for example, about local military developments.

In the course of several days of military escalation in February, its audience increased by more than 100,000 subscribers and is now about 200,000.

On February 22, one of the most popular posts on Typical Donetsk was footage of a laughing man in a woman's fur coat and makeup. The man was supposedly sent by his wife to bring drinking water as local militia tried to track down male civilians who were unwilling to enlist. The city experienced water shortages in the aftermath of shelling.

Comments on Typical Donetsk's posts are rarely moderated; this also adds to the channel's popularity. Currently, some discussions consist of over 1,000 comments as worried users continuously follow the news.

There still remain some popular and presumably independent channels, even though those responsible for spreading disinformation still attempt to make communication in general even more distorted and chaotic.

For many in Donetsk and Luhansk, however, Telegram channels and chats are still the primary and most trusted sources of information. Under repressive regimes, where no public communication is allowed without special sanction, they function as a digital version of a Soviet kitchen - the safest place to discuss any political issues.

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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