Photo-illustration by Lon Tweeten for TIME; Getty images
March 21, 2022 7:00 AM EDT

Before the Russian military invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Nataliia Nezhynska had never used Telegram. Now she can’t go a day without the messaging app. It feeds her an endless stream of updates from her native city of Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine, to her home in Lorton, Va.

“What the Army is doing, how many helicopters they destroyed, some news on supplies, shared jokes, local heroes, fallen and still active,” she rattles off. Nezhynska, who earned American citizenship by serving as a combat medic in the U.S. Army for five years, says the posts on the popular app will one day double as evidence. “I think it’s a very useful tool to document war crimes,” she says, “since it has a lot of live footage of bombings from the phones of residents [and] security cameras too.”

It’s difficult to imagine how Russia’s war in Ukraine would be playing out without Telegram. The messaging app, which last year reached a billion downloads, has turned into the conflict’s digital battle space. It’s an instrumental tool for both governments and a hub of information for citizens on both sides. Ukrainian government officials, including President Volodymyr Zelensky, rely on the app for everything from rallying global support to disseminating air raid warnings and maps of local bomb shelters. So do both the Russian government and Russian opposition channels, who now find themselves cut off from most mainstream social media. Amateur sleuths and senior military officials alike comb Ukrainian channels 24/7 for fresh details about the latest strikes or military developments.

Read More: How Volodymyr Zelensky Defended Ukraine and United the World.

Wars have unfolded on social media before, but rarely have they been so meticulously documented as in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And Telegram has emerged as its most important social-media platform, offering the world an unfiltered view of the war. The app has been essential in the exodus of more than three million Ukrainian refugees, connecting them to safe routes and aid. Millions of Ukrainians outside the country use it to find news from home, desperately scanning endless feeds of photos and videos for familiar landmarks or faces. So do family members of Russian soldiers.

“It’s the last social media bridge from the Western world into the Russian world…where you can kind of see what’s going and how the battle is playing out,” says Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who focuses on foreign disinformation. “Whoever can sustain their information campaigns on Telegram has the best chance of shaping world views around what’s going on inside Ukraine.”

The power and peril of Telegram is the product of its lack of oversight. Founded in 2013 by now-exiled Russian brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov, the messaging app soon became notorious as a haven for extremists like the Islamic State. As social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube cracked down on content from jihadist and extremist groups, the then-obscure messaging service offered them speed, security, and privacy—with little to no moderation. Telegram has been used by fringe groups like Covid-19 and QAnon conspiracy theorists and white nationalists, but also Black Lives Matter organizers, pro-democracy groups from South Korea to Cuba and Iran, and Russia’s own opposition groups. (Telegram did not return a request for comment.)

There is no algorithm that decides what to show users or what to restrict, and its architecture allows limitless groups. Comments are easily turned off, turning channels into a megaphone blasting information to a captive audience of millions of followers. With just one click, a built-in button can translate messages from Russian to English or other languages, turning it into a tool of mass communication.

This has turned Telegram into the heart of the propaganda battle, allowing tales of Ukrainian resistance or heroism to go viral side-by-side with Russian disinformation. Now, amid increasingly brutal attacks on Ukrainian civilians and a desperate crackdown on “false information” in Russia, both sides are racing to dominate the Telegram war.

“Telegram has become this really key battleground in the information war,” says Dr. Ian Garner, a historian and translator of Russian war propaganda. “And it’s interesting that this information war has been outsourced to a private company.”

Zelenksy’s team is no stranger to Telegram. His advisers were early adopters during his 2019 presidential campaign. They used the app to recruit and organize volunteers, often posting exclusive news. When they suddenly found themselves leading a wartime digital effort, officials were able to rely on their previous infrastructure to coordinate news updates, fundraise, and recruit cyber-volunteers and foreign fighters.

“I could even say it’s our home turf,” Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation, told TIME in a March 12 interview. “When the war erupted, we went back to Telegram and remembered everything that we knew, so we are operating quite successfully.”

Read More: The Man on Ukraine’s Digital Frontline

The Ukrainian government repurposed its official COVID-19 Telegram channel, which for the previous two years had been used to share pandemic-related news, to provide 24/7 updates about the war. Renamed “UkraineNow,” the effort now has more than three million followers across its Ukrainian, Russian and English-language channels. Fedorov’s team has also used the app to recruit an “IT Army” of 300,000 cybersecurity volunteers, it told TIME.

Zelensky uses it to share informal, personal videos, often filmed on a smartphone, to the wider world. In three weeks, his channel—which had 65,000 followers on Feb. 23—has grown explosively. An international audience of more than 1.5 million people now subscribes to his updates.

But Ukrainian officials have also found a range of new practical uses for the app. Most cities and towns, as well as their local officials, have their own channels. Authorities share air-raid warnings, maps of bomb shelters, safety advice, and tips for spotting alleged Russian saboteurs.

Read More: The Mothers Returning to Ukraine to Rescue Their Children

It’s not only a way for Ukrainian officials to get information out, but also for civilians to provide information back to them. People can report details about the movements of Russian troops and armored vehicles through Telegram bots, which channel the information back to Ukrainian national and regional authorities. On March 8, Ukraine’s Security Service said one such tip allowed them to successfully attack Russian vehicles outside Kyiv. “Your messages about the movement of the enemy through the official chatbot…bring new trophies every day,” the agency tweeted.

The Ukrainians have also used Telegram to try to outpace the Russian propaganda machine by warning people about false narratives—that Ukrainian forces were surrendering, or that Zelensky had fled Kyiv—before they take root. Ukraine’s Center for Countering Disinformation, which is part of its national security and defense council, has been calling on ordinary citizens to “join the information front!”

“While our defenders repel the onslaught of the occupiers, Russian information terrorists broadcast a picture of an alternative reality,” it posted on Telegram on Feb. 27. “Today Ukrainians must unite. Contact your relatives, acquaintances and friends in Russia and send them a link to the Telegram channel.”

The app has been no less important for the Russians. While Telegram has long been popular in Russia, the invasion and the subsequent media crackdown has driven millions of news-starved users to the service. An analysis of 187 Russian-language news channels provided to TIME by Logically, a U.K.-based technology company that counters misinformation, shows that their subscribers have grown 48% since Feb. 24, jumping by 8 million.

It’s difficult to tell how many Russians are seeking out independent news about the war on Telegram, and how many are following pro-Russian propaganda after migrating to the app following the ban of Facebook and Twitter. The app is used by many Russian opposition groups, and was critical to the organization of the Belarus protests against Putin ally Alexander Lukashenko in 2020, yet it seems unlikely the Russian government will move again to ban it. (It tried and failed before.)

“The Russian government needs Telegram,” says Garner. “Their news websites keep getting hacked, they keep getting taken down, and they keep having outages…so they’ve been telling people to use and follow them on Telegram to get the news.”

Read More: A Ukrainian Photographer Documents the Invasion of His Country.

During the war in Ukraine, pro-Russian accounts have followed a familiar playbook of flooding Telegram with disinformation and bots. Lately, they have employed fake personas posing as “war correspondents” through an arsenal of Kremlin-friendly channels masquerading as objective reporting. A Russian channel called “The War on Fakes,” which pretends to be a fact-checking service about the conflict in Ukraine, has been spreading disinformation and propaganda to its growing audience of more than 630,000 followers. When Telegram banned official Russian state media accounts for users in the European Union to comply with new restrictions, the Russians simply used “mirror” channels that are more difficult to track, says Jordan Wildon, a senior analyst for Logically.

At the same time, Telegram is also the conduit through which authentic details that contradict the Kremlin’s closely controlled narrative trickle back into Russia. “These narratives that are not coming from any state media source are seeping through even to the more traditional media viewers,” says Garner. “Which means they must be getting in through Telegram.”

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Write to Vera Bergengruen at [email protected].

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