Russia’s battle to convince people to join its war is being waged on Telegram

Russia’s battle to convince people to join its war is being waged on Telegram

When Vladimir Putin declared the partial call-up of military reservists on September 21, in a desperate effort to try to turn his long and brutal war in Ukraine in Russia’s favor, he kicked off another, parallel battle: one to convince the Russian people of the merits and risks of conscription. This battle is being waged on Telegram, an encrypted messaging service. Pro-Putin actors push party propaganda and the opposition offers ways out of the country.

Telegram is something special, in Russia,” said Alena Epifanova (a research fellow at The German Council on Foreign Relations who specializes on Russia). “On one side, it’s a symbol of freedom on the internet.”

Telegram is one of the few platforms to survive Russia’s attempts to tamp down on free speech online against its leader. In 2018, Russian authorities tried to ban Telegram as part of a wider crackdown on internet freedoms, but failed–in part because of how the service rerouted messages outside of Russia and beyond the clutches of the country’s media regulator. It is also due to the creativity of its users, who are skilled in setting up VPNs and evading government oversight of their internet activity.

After failing to beat Telegram’s technology, Russia’s government joined it and set up its own channels to broadcast pro-Kremlin propaganda into cyberspace.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 2, Telegram has been “an important source information about the war in general,” Epifanova said. Telegram is where both sides share daily updates on military gains and losses for a domestic audience and international observers.

So, as sure as night follows day, after Putin’s mobilization of reservists this week, pro-Kremlin Telegram channels began to line up dutifully behind the leader’s plans. One supposedly grassroots pro-Putin Telegram channel–which Ilya Yablokov, lecturer in journalism and digital media at the University of Sheffield, says is “clearly state-affiliated”–has been acting as a rapid-fire response organization to combat narratives critical of state policies. Yablokov claims that they reacted quickly to yesterday’s news concern about a million Ukrainian soldiers being drafted into war in Ukraine.

The official Telegram channel of the Russian Ministry of Defense shared the message of the group justifying Putin’s move as evidence of public support. Yablokov says that the Kremlin “tries to respond quickly because it understands that it’s a hard moment and a complicated topic.” “They must wage a war on the hearts and minds

Other pro-Kremlin Telegram channel have been sharing images from mobilization offices showing men “voluntarily” signing up for combat–images that promote the notion that the war Putin is waging in Ukraine is just and winnable. Yevgeniy Glovchenko, a postdoctoral researcher at University of Copenhagen, discusses disinformation and censorship in social media.

It is not clear if this propaganda is effective. Despite all the government’s efforts to control Telegram’s narrative, there is a vibrant opposition working on the same platform to undermine it and offer support to those who want to avoid the draft. Russia’s fiercely independent anti–Putin groups offer suggestions via Telegram on ways to avoid being called up. They even plan to attempt to undermine state efforts to drag innocent citizens into his war.

Just minutes after Putin announced conscription, the administrators of the anti-Kremlin Rospartizan group announced its own “mobilization,” gearing up its supporters to bomb military enlistment officers and the Ministry of Defense with Molotov cocktails. They wrote that ordinary Russians were invited to die in foreign countries for nothing. “Agitate, incite, spread the truth, but do not be the ones who legitimize the Russian government.”

The Rospartizan Telegram group–which has more than 28,000 subscribers–has posted photos and videos purporting to show early action against the military mobilization, including burned-out offices and broken windows at local government buildings.

Other Telegram channels are offering citizens opportunities for less direct, though far more self-interested, action–namely, how to flee the country even as the government has instituted a nationwide ban on selling plane tickets to men aged 18 to 65. Russians were able to find help in other countries almost immediately after Putin spoke. Some groups on Telegram also adjusted their messages.

One group, which offers advice and tips on how to cross from Russia to Georgia, is rapidly closing in on 100,000 members. The group dates back to at least November 2020, according to previously pinned messages; since then, it has offered information for potential travelers about how to book spots on minibuses crossing the border and how to travel with pets.

After Putin’s declaration, the channel became a conduit for young men who gave alleged firsthand accounts of crossing the border this past week. Users share their age, whereabouts, and any resistance encountered by border guards if any.

For those who have not decided to flee Russia, there are other messages that explain how to avoid being called up for army service. Another channel, set up shortly after Putin’s conscription drive, crowdsources information about where police and other authorities in Moscow are signing up men of military age. It gained 52,000 subscribers in just two days, and they are keeping track of photos, videos, and maps showing where people are being handed conscription orders. The group is one of many: another Moscow-based Telegram channel doing the same thing has more than 115,000 subscribers. Half that audience joined in 18 hours overnight on September 22.

You won’t see many calls or advice from established media about how to avoid mobilization,” Golovchenko says. “You will see it on Telegram

The Kremlin is trying hard for supremacy on Telegram due to its current position as an attractive source of subterfugel for those opposed Putin and his regime, Golovchenko says. “What is at stake here is the extent to Telegram can amplify the idea that war has become part of Russia’s daily life,” he said. “If Russians begin to realize their neighbors and friends and fathers are being killed en masse, that will be crucial.”

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