Since the Arab Spring, when social networks and messenger apps became a tool for protesters’ organisation, social platforms like Facebook or Telegram transformed from a channel of mobilisation to an essential source of news for people during protests and military conflicts.
Telegram in particular seems to be a safe haven for many independent media channels in extreme circumstances. That’s in part thanks to Telegram’s ability to bypass censorship, as Telegram almost never flags or filters posts and channels – banned independent media in Russia rely on Telegram to reach their audience, as do Belarus oppositional channels like NEXTA or TYT.BY, which gained most of their Telegram following during the 2020 protests in Belarus.
Countering censorship is only part of the story, however. Ukraine’s media landscape is much more free and less restrictive than in Belarus and Russia. Still, when Russia openly invaded Ukraine in February 2022, news media’s Telegram channels rose significantly as a reliable way to get up-to-date information about the war, thanks to its chronological feed and the speed of information flow.
The Fix analysed the biggest Ukrainian independent media organisations to see what impact the Russian invasion had on their Telegram channels.
We looked at the main independent Ukrainian news media that had already established their Telegram channels before the war. The selected outlets are: Unian, Ukrayinska Pravda, Suspilne. News, NV, Babel, Liga.net, ZN.UA, Radio Svoboda, BBC News Ukraine, Ukraine24, Hromadske.
These media organisations are diverse in their content, forms of ownership, and business models. However, they have exhibited almost the same trends when it comes to their Telegram channels.
Ukrainian media’s Telegram audience spiked in the first days and months of war. Numbers for the main channels skyrocketed in February and March and continued to go up (not as fast) in April.
A substantial jump in the number of subscribers happened just in one day. On the 24th of February – the day of the Russian full-scale invasion in Ukraine – channels saw their subscriber numbers double in most cases. For Suspilne.News the number of subscribers grew four-fold, for Unian five-fold, Ukraine24 six-fold. The number continued to rise every day.
The majority of subscriptions came in the first two weeks of the war. People, in urgent need of information, were more likely to subscribe to multiple news sources. Telegram happened to be one of the fastest ways to get not only news from different sources but also crucial updates. For example, many Telegram channels were sending messages of air raid alerts in different parts of the country, informing their readers that it’s time to find shelter.
War means that people need more crucial updates – is fighting taking place near their home town? What stores are open in their city? How will military mobilisation take place? Ukrainian media understood the audience’s needs and ramped up posting.
Another reason for the growth of posts is the substantial growth of available content. For example, since the first day of the war, Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine, addressed the nation at least once a day, and his speeches are always distributed through media Telegram channels. Government agencies, especially the ones connected to the military (Defence Intelligence, Ministry of Defense, General Staff of Armed Forces, etc.) and internal security (Security Service, Ministry of Internal Affairs) developed their own channels, and their messages have been actively reposted by media. Political and military experts also became quite popular interviewees on the Ukrainian news channels, which means that their analyses are usually mentioned on the Telegram channel.
Content from readers themselves also became a considerable part of many news sources. Stories about or by Ukrainian soldiers, photos of volunteers and their work or videos about failures of the Russian army are just a few examples of content shared by the audiences, not only helps Telegram channels with their frequent posting but keeps up the morale of Ukrainians.
Unian and Ukraine24 are illustrative examples. Comparing March to January, Unian had nearly eight times the number of posts in the channel, and Ukraine24 posted seven times more in the same period. Other news organisations also increased their output on Telegram as well.
Post views increased dramatically for all the Ukrainian Telegram channels. Unian, Suspilne.News, Ukraine24 and UP.Strichka had the fastest and the largest growth in views.
However, when talking about the future sustainability of the channel, reach might be more important: people who engage with content are more likely to return.
Most of the media outlets in our sample increased their reach over time. Suspilne.News showed superb results and an average number in comparison to its starting position in January. Suspilne.News’ success is largely due to the fact that it has a large network of regional channels, like Suspilne.Kharkiv, Suspilne.Kherson and so on, which provide a lot of ground coverage from local communities. Each regional channel has its own Telegram channel and contributes to Suspilne.News. Union and Ukraine24 also have a high reach. However, what you might notice is that the reach drops in April almost for every Telegram channel. This might be because people are getting psychologically tired from war and try to limit their time on social media.
Interestingly, a high number of subscribers with a high number of publications does not necessarily mean that reach will be high as well. As ERR indicators show (ERR means Engagement rate by reach which calculates as the proportion between average views per post and number of subscribers), subscription leaders like Unian, Ukraine24, UP. Strichka did not see a substantial change or even see a drop in ERR, which might mean that subscribers who they acquired during wartime might not stick around later or won’t be active. On the other hand, media like NV, which did not increase their subscription numbers that drastically, are seeing progress in their ERR (from 49% in January to 60% in March). In that sense, NV is possibly making its audience more loyal in the future.