Telegram, a social media platform commonly used by Ukrainians and Russians alike, has been used as a “legalized darknet” and a tool for Russian disinformation, and there’s a need to at least “de-anonymize” the platform, said Andriy Yusov, spokesperson of Ukraine’s Defence Intelligence Directorate (HUR).

“Often Telegram is used as a somewhat legalized darknet in which you can find anything from selling drugs to groups of draft dodgers or some other people who are engaged in anything up to child pornography,” said Yusov in an interview with the Center for Countering Disinformation.

Yusov also said Ukraine has been susceptible to Russian disinformation campaigns for years, where social media platforms such as Telegram are used to disseminate false information that is spread irresponsibly or deliberately.

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Yusov also raised concerns about Telegram’s Russian roots, where he said there were “recorded cases” of Telegram cooperating with Russian special services.

“[Telegram’s] owner is Russian, the development team is Russian,” said Yusov in reference to Telegram’s owner Pavel Durov, a Russian-born entrepreneur who is now a naturalized French citizen.

“Now it is an offshore company with a closed structure of owners. There is information about the location of part of the servers on the territory of the Russian Federation,” he added.

HUR Hacks into Russia’s Ulyanovsk City Administration’s Website
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HUR Hacks into Russia’s Ulyanovsk City Administration’s Website

Kyiv Post HUR sources confirmed that Ukrainian hackers posted a fake entry on the Ulyanovsk regional administration website calling for a rally in support of the “special military operation.”

In 2018, Russia’s supreme court ruled that Telegram must provide the Kremlin’s security services with encryption keys to gain access to users’ messaging data, citing security concerns.

In March this year, officials from the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) also claimed that Telegram cooperated with Moscow’s censorship agency Roskomnadzor and the Federal Security Service (FSB).

Yusov said action needed to be taken as social media channels can influence Ukrainian citizens in the same way as traditional media, and similar measures should be adopted to “normalize” the situation.

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“I will not say loud words [such as] ‘ban’ or others. But it is definitely necessary to normalize it, to de-anonymize it.

“If we have strict enough requirements for traditional mass media, why shouldn’t these requirements be for other platforms that are focused on spreading information?” said Yusov, whose statement echoed earlier proposals by lawmakers to introduce regulations to social media platforms.

In March, Ukrainian lawmakers submitted a draft law to define platforms such as Telegram and TikTok as separate media entities and introduce regulations on their dissemination of information.

There have been multiple studies that showed Russian use of Telegram as a platform for disinformation campaigns against Ukraine, which is likely the reason for the new draft law.

According to the explanatory note of the draft law, 72 percent of Ukrainians obtain information through Telegram channels. A Washington Post article published in February stated that the Telegram audience in Ukraine had grown 600 percent over the previous year.

In another incident, Telegram blocked the chatbots of multiple Ukrainian special services – including the HUR – at the end of April. According to Reuters it said it had received requests from Apple to introduce changes relating to “general news and propaganda” channels accessible to Ukrainian users, the week before.

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The chatbots were reinstated the same day when Telegram said the bots were “temporarily disabled due to a false positive.”

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