An investigative team of journalists from 13 countries including think tank analyzing pro-Russian disinformation Debunk.org spent six months closely following the spread of disinformation, propaganda and alt-right opinion on social and other internet networks in Europe. The ecosystem for radicalization of opinion, influencing public debate and destroying democratic values, has moved from social networks to a more hidden communication tool.
Telegram has some elements of a social network, using channels and groups. Designed to provide anonymity and able to reach hundreds of thousands of readers, Telegram became the “go to” tool for Russian propagandists, both left-wing and right-wing radicals, American QAnon and conspiracy theorists.
Telegram is now a covert conduit through which disinformation and conspiracies flow throughout Central and Eastern Europe and beyond.
Investigative journalists in a Firehose of Falsehood team project analyzed almost 18,000 Telegram accounts (channels and groups) with impact mainly in Central and Eastern Europe to find out how users are interconnected.
According to statistics, Telegram is the third largest communication platform after WhastApp and Messenger. It is used by just over 700 million users worldwide. The company does not provide information on the number of users in each country, but according to Stata report and others, Telegram is not just the network of Russia and Ukraine. Europe accounts for a full fifth of its users, with at least 21,3 % of Germans and 46.5 % of Italians already using it.
In addition to messaging, distant millions of users can set up groups and channels similar to Facebook groups and pages. Telegram does not provide information on how many personal accounts, channels and groups there are in and how big they are in countries outside the post-Soviet area. The largest server with statistics on Telegram channels and groups, Russia’s TGStat, reports that it has data on more than 1.2 milion groups and channels, the vast majority from post-Soviet countries.
For Germany, TGStat only offers data on approximately 900 channels and groups. But as our analysis showed, there are at least 7,000 active groups and channels in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
What is Telegram
Telegram is a communication platform, similar to WhatsApp or Messenger, with some features of a social network. It has over 700 million users. Its founders are brothers Pavel and Nikolai Durov, who originally hail from Russia but are now based in Dubai. Pavel Durov is the sole owner of Telegram and his fortune is estimated at $11.5 billion. Pavel Durov is sometimes called the Russian Zuckerberg because he was the founder of the VKontakte network with Ilya Perekopsky. But after state pressure, he sold his shares in 2012.
Most of Telegram’s users are located in Russia, Ukraine and other countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States. One of its main advantages is the encryption of communication and anonymity of users. In groups, the user’s phone number is not visible, a privacy protection. Telegram has become a popular source of information about the war in Ukraine and protests in Belarus and Iran. People share news and photos that they could not safely post elsewhere.
Due to its lack of content monitoring, Telegram has also become a popular communication channel for extremist and terrorist groups. Despite this, Telegram is still a popular choice for many users, especially those who want control over their data and privacy, and the number of users is expected to exceed 1 billion this year.
The team of Firehose of Falsehood journalists created a catalog of Telegram channels from over 13 countries in Eastern and Central Europe, including Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Croatia, Latvia and Lithuania. In every country, some of the most popular Telegram channels and groups are part of the broader disinformation ecosystem, either by being associated with the alt-right scene or with pro-Kremlin groups or anti-vaxxers.
Telegram is the largest functional platform for disinformation in Central and Eastern Europe, mostly free of public or law enforcement attention. There are exceptions like in Germany, but without any significant results. (See Telegram’s statement in response to our questions below the article).
In the German-speaking countries where Telegram is widely used, nearly a quarter of a million users subscribe to the far-right channel AUF1 TV (Alternatives, unabhängiges Fernsehen – Alternative, independent television).
AUF1 is an online TV channel with origins in the Austrian alt-right movement. Since its creation, it has been prominently featuring known alt-right figures such as Jürgen Elsässer and politicians from the German right wing populist party AFD (Alternative für Deutschland) . AUF1TV’s Telegram channel has grown from 70,000 users in mid-2021 to a quarter of a million in early 2023. The rapid growth of AUF1 is aided by the entire network of ‘alternative’ media referring to each other and promoting each other’s content.
In February 2022, KommAustria, an Austrian media regulator, described the content of AUF1 as “violating the standards according to Austrian media law” and started an investigation. The Austrian interior ministry, asked about AUF1TV in late 2022 by the German public broadcaster ARD, confirmed: “Due to the broadcaster’s choice of topics, it can be assumed that there is a certain influence on extremist or conspiracy theorist audiences. To date, however, no unconstitutional or criminal content could be detected.”
If the Austrian regulators decide to shut down the online TV channel, AUF1TV might still keep its audience via its Telegram channel, over which the government won’t have much oversight or legal authority.
In Poland, Ocalić życie (Saving Lives), which spreads QAnon-related conspiracies among other content, reaches almost 30,000 subscribers. More influential channels in spreading Russian propaganda include Niezależny Dziennik Polityczny and News Front Polska, with previously reported links to Kremlin influence operations. Their websites were blocked by Polish authorities when the war in Ukraine broke out. Since then, our investigation finds, they have been actively developing their presence on Telegram, gaining hundreds of new subscribers monthly.
In the much smaller Czech Republic, the Absurdni svet (Absurd World in English) channel was similar in size to the Polish Ocalić Życie. The content linked to a number of German sites, including the German version of RT (Russia Today) and the German version of the Russian disinformation site News Front. The Telegram channel CZ 24 NEWS has almost 23,000 subscribers, and belongs to one of the largest Czech-Slovak conspiracy websites. The audience for many of these channels grew when Czech internet authority CZ.NIC blocked some pro-kremlin websites after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. .
In Slovakia, the largest Telegram channel reporters analyzed is a well-known representative of the far right, Danny Kollar, with more than 50,000 followers. Similarly influential is the channel of Infovojna (43,359 subscribers), a disinformation server that spreads the content and narrative of the Russian News Front. The Slovak version of the News Front has over 31.000 subscribers.
In Hungary, the biggest channel of the disinformation server Orosz Hírek (Russian News) has 15,000 fans. The largest Serbian Telegram channel is the personal channel of Dejan Beric, a Pro-Russian Serbian soldier who fought for the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic and is currently in charge of recruiting Serbian volunteers for the Russian army. His channel has over 86,000 subscribers. In neighboring Bulgaria, one of the largest channels is Bulgarian Military Union “Vasil Levski” with over 11,000 subscribers. The channel is run by paramilitary organisation linked to Russia.
In addition to regional channels defined by language and state, there are also transnational channels. The project reporters analyzed how content is shared between almost 18,000 Telegram channels and groups.
Online website Disclose.tv, is a far-right site operating from Passau, Germany. This channel’s posts are the most frequently shared in the largest number of countries. Reporters found 21 countries or languages in which posts have been shared, including Poland, Germany, Czech Republic and Croatia.
The channel with the second-most shared posts in different countries is SGTnewsNetwork. There is not much public information on the channel, which mostly disseminates content related to the US alt-right conspiracy scene.
The channel with the third-most shared posts in different countries is LauraAboli’s channel, which belongs to the co founder World Check intelligence platform used by due diligence companies and the 2020 founder of the United Democratic International Movement for Awareness and Freedom. The channel promotes content focused on so-called “vaccine truth” and questions if Covid existed at all. It features video content from the US alt-right media. Links to other fat-right sites such as www.zerohedge.com, www.theepochtimes.com, www.disclose.tv and www.breitbart.com are also frequently shared.
All these channels are in English but the countries of origin are different. In addition, German language channels and groups seem to play a major role in spreading disinformation, alt-right and conspiracy content .
The most shared content of the German-language channels shared abroad were mostly from the disinformation, conspiracy and alt-right scene:
|uncut_news||Uncut-News.ch “Das Original”||Nachrichten, News, Infos und vieles mehr Powered by uncut-news.ch
EN: News, information and much more Powered by uncut-news.ch
|FaktenFriedenFreiheit||Fakten Frieden Freiheit||Wenn du meine Arbeit unterstützen und Kontakt zu mir haben möchtest, dann komm gerne in die Insider Gruppe ANONYME ALUHÜTE @AnonymeAluhueteBot DANKE
EN: If you want to support my work and contact me, feel free to join the insider group ANONYME ALUHÜTE @AnonymeAluhueteBot THANKS
||Unzensiert V2||Unzensiert Ersatzkanal 1 @unzensiert_infoseite Nachrichten aus aller Welt – unzensiert @unzensiert ist ein Non-Profit Kanal Partnerkanäle @Aufwachen @DokuKiste
EN: Uncensored replacement channel 1 @uncensored_infopage News from around the world – uncensored @uncensored is a non-profit channel Partnerkanäle @wakeup @DokuKiste
|GHZFriedrichMaik||Informationen für das GHZ Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Herzogthum Pommern und das Königreich Preussen Preussen||Aktuelle Informationen über die Großherzogthümer und das Königreich Preussen Preussen sowie weltweite Geschehnisse
EN: Current information about the Grand Duchies and the Kingdom of Prussia as well as world events
|Haintz||Markus Haintz||Nachrichten und Einschätzungen zum aktuellen Weltgeschehen.
EN: News and assessments of current world events.
|macklemachtgutelaune||Mäckle macht gute Laune||126.720|
|QlobalChange||Qlobal-Change||https://qalerts.app @QC_Kontakt_Bot 2️⃣ @Qlobal_Change @QlobalChangeUSA @QlobalChangeItalia @QlobalChangeEspana @QlobalChangePortugal @QlobalChangeFrance @QlobalChangeNL @X22_Report_Deutsch ▶️ https://odysee.com/@Qlobal-Change:6||118.995|
|russlandsdeutsche||Russländer & Friends||Kanal für Russländer und Russland-Freunde Hier findet ihr: – News um Russland auf Deutsch – Einen Platz für Freunde Russlands, Russländer und Russlanddeutsche
EN: Channel for Russians and friends of Russia. Here you can find news about Russia in German. A place for friends of Russia, Russians and Russian-Germans.
|technikus_news||@TECHNIKUS NEWS||Willkommen auf unserem Technikus News Kanal! Hier bekommen Sie regelmäßige Updates zu den wichtigsten Themen des Tages.
EN: Welcome to our Technikus News Channel! Here you will get regular updates on the most important topics of the day.
|Vivoterra||Vivoterra||www.vivoterra.com – Die Schatzkammer des Wissens
www.vivoterra.com – The treasury of knowledge.
|AnonymousSchweizOrginal||ANONYMOUS – SCHWEIZ||[email protected] Kontakt: We are anonymous. We are legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us. #OpNewWorldOrder #InfoSec #OSINTResearch #Infowar||33,675|
|Auf1tv||AUF1||Alternatives, unabhängiges Fernsehen www.auf1.tv
EN: Alternative, independent television www.auf1.tv
No other Telegram accounts from EU countries we studied play such an important role in spreading extreme views as German Telegram channels and groups.
So the growing activity of German language disinformation seems to have a major impact on a large European audience. Articles from German disinformation websites are widely shared by other alternative websites in Central and Eastern Europe, and so are posts from their Telegram channel. The impact is hidden radicalization of the European disinformation ecosystem that has so far escaped the attention of the public.
List of journalists participating in the project:
Josef Šlerka, Investigace.cz, Czech Republic
Anna Gielewska, VSquare, Poland
Anastasiia Morozova, Frontstory, Poland
Anja Vladisavljević, Oštro, Croatia
Hrvoje Perica, Oštro, Croatia
Katarina Bulatović, Oštro, Slovenia
Iulia Stănoiu, Context.ro, Romania
Karin Kõváry Sólymos, ICJK, Slovakia
Marija Vučić, KRIK, Serbia
Atanas Tchobanov, BIRD.BG, Bulgaria
Márton Sarkadi Nagy, Átlátszó, Hungary
Zalán Zubor, Átlátszó, Hungary
and many others.
Special thanks to Petra Blum, WDR and Palina Milling, WDR
We asked Telegram a few questions about its operations:
1) Our analysis shows that Telegram is heavily used to disseminate disinformation, conspiracy theories and extremist content, including content from sites sanctioned by the EU and other countries (e.g. RT, News-Front). What is your comment?
2) What measures are you taking to prevent harmful content from being spread on Telegram?
3) Have you been aware of allegations that a lot of harmful and dangerous content which has been removed by the big social media platforms such as Meta has then reappeared on Telegram, because it’s perceived as having lower standards?
4) Do you have protocols and procedures in place similar to the big social media platforms (Meta, Twitter, YouTube)? If yes, which protocols and procedures do you have in place to ensure the safety of the Telegram service?
5) Do you remove content under certain circumstances? If yes, what are the rules and procedures for removal on Telegram?
Here is the full text of Telegram’s response:
Unlike other platforms, Telegram does not use algorithmic feeds to recommend content to users. As such, content with unverified sources is unable to reach users who don’t actively seek it out.
Telegram is a unique source of independent information that is otherwise suppressed. For example, Russians can access news outlets banned by the Kremlin, like Meduza (@meduzalive), BBC Russian (@bbcrussian), and Dozhd (@tvrain), as well as channels of prominent figures and politicians like Alexander Nevzorov (@nevzorovtv), Mikhail Khodorkovsky (@khodorkovski) and President Zelensky (@V_Zelenskiy_official).
Telegram is also a key platform for news from Ukraine for users around the world, with verified channels like Ukraine NOW (@UkraineNow), The New York Times (@nytimes) and Financial Times (@financialtimes) broadcasting the latest updates.
Telegram is abiding by EU sanctions by blocking access to the channels of RT and Sputnik for EU-based users. While any user can set up a small stream or channel on Telegram, our team receives a notification when it gets a noticeable number of views or subscribers so that it can be examined.
Calls for violence are explicitly forbidden by Telegram’s Terms of Service. Our moderators proactively monitor public-facing parts of our platform and accept user reports in order to remove such content.
If you have found posts calling for violence on our platform or accounts trying to circumvent EU sanctions, I would greatly appreciate it if you could provide links to it so that our moderators may investigate.
For our research, we used a variety of methods to identify Telegram accounts in Central and Eastern Europe. Initially, we used data from Ahrefs for our search, followed by Google Custom Search, data from CrowdTangle, and TGstat. Using the Telethon library, we downloaded the content of the Telegram channels and groups that we discovered, and then analyzed their content. We extracted several pieces of information, including the names of other groups and channels whose posts were shared. We repeated this “snowballing” method multiple times, eventually collecting data from 17,749 channels and groups (ranging from a few dozen posts to several thousand). We used machine learning algorithms to analyze their content, including their language, links, and posts shared from other channels and groups.
Our catalog included 7,700 German-language accounts, 800 in Polish, 548 in Czech, 366 in Slovak, 281 in Serbian, 192 in Romanian, 185 in Bulgarian, 159 in Hungarian, 128 in Croatian, plus accounts in other languages. However, it is important to note that our catalog may not provide a complete representation of the number of Telegram channels and groups operating in Central and Eastern Europe.
Data was collected between December 2022 and March 2023.
Central Europe’s leading English language investigative platform.