‘Spiteful Tongues’: How Telegram became the go-to place for Russian political gossip

Three Telegram channels, who all claim to reveal “insider information” about Russian politics, have been stirring up debate about what their rise really mean.

Russian political scientist Leonid Davidov enjoys a large following on the web, with nearly 60 000 followers on Twitter, 19 000 on Vkontakte and 36 000 people on Facebook reading his various analyses on regional politics.

But the 19 000 people who follow him on Telegram come for something different, that Davidov only shares on the messaging app: short messages that usually start with “spiteful tongues are saying that…”, followed by the latest rumours on upcoming promotions or firing of state officials, or more generally on events about Russian politics.

The rumours don’t always materialize, but they do hit the mark sometimes: on the 2d of February, “Davidov.index”, the name of his channel, wrote that the governor of the Perm region would not run in the next elections. Three anonymous sources told the same thing to the Rain TV station on the 5th, before the governor officially announced it on the 6th.

On the 2d of February, “Davidov.index” wrote that the governor of the Perm region would not run in the next elections, several days before it was officially announced

Full Kremlinology

“Spiteful tongues” have become quite trendy in Russia, bringing with them questions about political journalism in the country and whether Telegram will be the next go-to platform for political blogging.

Telegram, a messaging app created by the founder of Vkontakte, Russia’s most popular social network, rose to fame in the West because of its use by jihadists eager to disseminate propaganda in a secure way. The app can be used by two people to talk with each other — just like other similar apps like What’sApp. But “channels” can also be set up: in that case, though anyone can join the channel, only the creator can write. Interactions between the channel and its readers is limited to polls that readers can participate in.

Along with “Davidov.index”, two other Telegram channels emerged as the most popular places to get “insider information” about Kremlin politics: “Nezygar”, whose name translate as “Not Zygar” (likely a reference to Russian journalist and former editor in chief of Rain TV Mikhail Zygar) was the first to be created in 2015 and remain today the most popular with 26 000 subscribers; “Metodichka”, who appeared at the end of the summer 2016, is read by at least 11 000 people.

The three channels offer a mix of political analysis, speculations over Kremlin policies and predictions about future appointments, decisions or events that could shape Russia’s political scene. Except for Davidov’s “spiteful tongues”, sources are never mentionned, and all three channels implicitely claim an “inside” knowledge of Kremlin politics.

Screenshot of the “Nezygar” Telegram channel

In contrast with “Davidov.index”, both “Nezygar” and “Metodichka” are anonymous, adding a layer of intrigue to their writings about the internal cuisine of the Kremlin: talking on the Ekho Moskvy radio station, popular Russian journalist Oleg Kashin said he “did not exclude” that those anonymous bloggers were paid to publish information.

They remained quite confidential, until they got a boost from an unexpected place: Russian state TV. On the 16th of January, “Rossiya24” broadcasted a report about “political bloggers” with an interview of a man hidden under a balaclava, claiming him to be “Nezygar”. The “Nezygar” Telegram channel quickly denied it, with “Metoditchka” claiming a member of the pro-Kremlin “Antimaidan” group was the man Rossiya24 interviewed. True or not, the polemic was beneficial to “Nezygar”, whose number of subscribers jumped from 16 000 to 24 000 in less than three weeks.

Inside the Duma

At the heart of those channels’ popularity is their alleged influence and far-reaching readership in the Russian political world. In a long piece dedicated to the topic, regional press agency Ura.ru quoted several Russian officials claiming themselves or their bosses would regularly look at the political gossip published by “Davidov.index”, “Nezygar” and “Metodichka”.

According to them, three deputies at the Duma installed Telegram on their smartphones specifically to read those channels “after posts from the channels were mentioned in several meetings”. Another source close to the “United Russia” party told Ura.ru officials would read those channels “mostly because of the reputational risk, because their reliability is poor”.

And it’s not just politicians: the channels have also become routine source of information for many Russian journalists, despite the obvious issue of using information from people whose identity and motivations remain unclear.

For Oleg Kashin, the rise of those anonymous channels illustrate the poor state of Russian journalism. “If Russia had good political scientists, active political journalism and strong, independent media, the “Nezygar” phenomenon would not exist”, he said on the TV Rain outlet.

“The main explanation for our success is that people who follow politics are tired from biased interpretations of events”, a member of “Metodichka” told me. He would not specify how many members their “permanent team” had, only saying not all of them lived in Russia. It’s unclear whether “Nezygar” is a collective or a solo project.

A new platform for political bloggers?

Another question has been whether Telegram will prove a fertile ground for political blogging as a whole.

Davidov believes Telegram has a bright future, telling the news outlet Lenta that the app’s users are “already developing their own culture.” And though Oleg Kashin remains very critical towards anonymous Telegram channels, he is a proficient user of the platform and is read by more than 7 000 people. In particular, the ability to write longer messages than on Twitter while not having to deal with comments (compare to Facebook or Vkontakte) has been described as some of the reason for the messaging app’s attractiveness.

But others remain unconvinced. “It’s just a fad”, Sergey Kolyasnikov, a conservative political blogger, told me by mail. “I have my own Telegram channel with more than a thousand subscribers, and I don’t see any real advantage compare to other social platforms”.

Surprisingly, “Metodichka” seems to agree: “Right now, Telegram is fashionable, especially among the so-called ‘advanced audience’,” a member of the group said when asked why they had chosen Telegram. But, he added, the app also “provides the best guarantees of anonymity at the moment”, making it particularly suitable for publishing “insider information”.