On Telegram, Russian Politics and Memes Translate Into Big Bucks

The most popular Telegram “channels” have many thousands of subscribers. Screencapped by Alexey Kovalev

With more than 90,000 subscribers, the Telegram channel “MDK” is not just one of the most popular one-stop shops for Russian-language memes on the messenger app. It’s also a profitable business.

MDK’s administrator told RuNet Echo he charges 25,000 rubles ($420) for a single ad on his channel, a blogging platform somewhere between a Facebook and Twitter account. He would not comment on how much money the channel was making overall, but sources in Russian media have claimed popular Telegram channels such as MDK can bring in up to 1 million rubles ($17,000) a month. Even that, however, can look like chump change when compared to other, more political, channels.

The emergence of Telegram channels is one of the consequences of the growing popularity of the messenger app created by Pavel Durov, the tech entrepreneur behind Vkontakte, a Facebook clone that still dominates the Russian social media landscape.

Telegram channels are a distinct feature allowing the messenger app to also be used as a blogging platform: anyone can subscribe to a channel, but only the creator can post on it. Channels have quickly grown in size and numbers in the last two years, and in some cases have become sizable business operations. One of the most popular Telegram channels made the headlines in the Russian press in September 2017 when it was sold for 5.5 million rubles (US$95,000) just two weeks after its creator had first sold it for 1.2 million rubles (US$20,000).

The business side of channels can get murky, however. That is because they have proved attractive not only to news websites and meme aggregators, but also to a whole new brand of anonymous political bloggers who specialize in revealing what they claim to be “insider information” about Kremlin politics.

On September 27, Russian business daily Vedomosti reported that Telegram channels had turned into a new market for “political ads,” claiming that business and political actors were ready to pay up to 450,000 rubles (US$7,500) to get information published on these channels. An administrator from the “Karaulny” political channel, which has 26,000 subscribers, told RuNet Echo that offers for publishing information on their channel ranged from 50,000 to 150,000 rubles and were essentially about “corporate conflicts,” but they would not comment on whether or not they accepted the proposals.

Vedomosti's piece does not say what kind of information is being published for this kind of money, though it quotes a source claiming the publication of “negative information” (otherwise known as black PR) can cost two to three times as much as more positive ads.

These prices might stem from the growing belief that these channels have gained a loyal readership in the higher ranks of the Russian state apparatus. In January 2017, local outlet Ura.ru claimed Telegram channels were routinely read during morning briefings and meetings of Duma deputies and in various ministries’ cabinets. In September, Vedomosti also revealed the channels were being monitored by Russia's Federal Security Service as well as the defense and interior ministries.

Thanks to a flurry of information and a few scoops, anonymous political channels have become over the previous year a major – albeit controversial – source of insights into Russian politics. “Nezygar,” the most popular of these channels, increased from 16,000 subscribers at the beginning of the year to more than 72,000 in September.

This growing popularity has also attracted criticism over the lack of transparency these anonymous channels thrive in. Oleg Kashin, a Russian journalist and himself an avid Telegram user, told the Rain TV channel in January that “If Russia had good political scientists, active political journalism and strong, independent media, the ‘Nezygar’ phenomenon would not exist.”

Given that not only the channels but also the high-ranking officials allegedly reading them are, in most cases, anonymous, doubts remain about their actual influence, while theories abound about their provenance. But whether they are, according to a source quoted by Vedomosti, a “plaything” of the Kremlin’s internal politics department or a new media for political experts, one thing seems clear: it’s a promising business.

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