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Bloomberg: EU is seeing an uptick of Telegram disinformation but is nearly powerless to address it

28.05.2024, 17:25

The messaging app Telegram has become a key weapon for pro-Kremlin accounts to spread disinformation aimed at undermining support for Ukraine. More recently, Russian intelligence officers have used it to recruit petty criminals to carry out acts of sabotage across European capitals, writes Bloomberg.

The media outlet reports that what most antagonizes European officials is Telegram being largely unaccountable. The officials have made the fight against fake news a top priority ahead of continent-wide elections in June. For all their new powers to regulate information online, they are largely powerless to rein in Telegram.

“Disinformation is spreading openly and completely unchecked on Telegram,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told Bloomberg.

Requests to remove disturbing content frequently go unanswered, she said: “We know that other member states have similar problems.”

“Telegram is popular among various pro-Russian actors as well as individuals who have been spreading disinformation for a long time because there is almost no content moderation,” said Daniel Milo, the former director of the Center for Countering Hybrid Threats at the Slovak Interior Ministry. “The rules of Telegram in this regard are very, very lax.”

The main themes of Russia’s disinformation efforts include its war against Ukraine, the conflict in the Middle East, immigration, climate change and the upcoming European parliament elections, according to an internal EU assessment seen by Bloomberg.

On those five topics, the number of items from unverified sources across all platforms had more than doubled by the beginning of May, compared with fewer than 20,000 pieces a day at the start of the year, the assessment shows.

According to the assessment, Telegram is central to spreading fake news from "doppelgangers" of mainstream media. For instance, after the attempted assassination in Slovakia, a Telegram channel with nearly 50,000 subscribers shared a long post from a website that falsely claimed to be the Daily Telegraph, a prominent British publication. The text asserted without evidence that pro-Ukrainian forces were responsible for the shooting of Prime Minister Fico.

The same operation has used more than 2,000 inauthentic social media accounts, according to the cybersecurity firm Recorded Future Inc. Those personas have sought to undermine faith in Ukraine’s military effort by posing as news organizations, or targeting German audiences to weaken confidence in their lawmakers. The group has also spread videos that falsely claim to be from Al Jazeera and EuroNews

The goal is to spread the links containing false information to Telegram, where user engagement in multiple channels is created and the content ultimately goes viral elsewhere on social media, with smaller countries especially vulnerable, reports the security firm Sekoia.

“Telegram is not an effective platform for spreading misinformation,” the company’s spokesperson said. “Unlike other apps, Telegram does not use algorithms to promote sensational content to users and they receive only the information they explicitly choose to subscribe to”.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied involvement in disinformation and sabotage operations.

On May 27, the EU added Victor Medvedchuk, an ex-deputy the outlawed party OPFL, the ex-host of his TV channel Artem Marchevsky, and the media platform "Voice of Europe", which is managed by Marchevsky, to the sanctions list.

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