Almost the whole world has been speaking loudly about the war in Ukraine for more than three weeks now. Almost, because there is one country that hides behind a possible new iron curtain and changes the narrative about current events in Ukraine – Russia.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, an actor turned politician, has recently sent out a strong message to Russians through social media. In addition to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, he made a very deliberate choice to publish his video via Telegram. We decided to study this case more in depth, as it was among the first attempts to reach Russian citizens through alternative channels.
Sotrender’s know-how in gathering and processing social media data enabled us to investigate the video reception and evaluate its reach and engagement across channels. Schwarzenegger’s move with Telegram was helpful indeed to disseminate his message in the former Soviet Union. However, despite very high relative engagement on Telegram, the ex-governor of California reached more people on Twitter and Facebook. This case is also an interesting lesson for those who would like to use Telegram to reach Russian audiences.
Schwarzenegger sets up a Telegram account to speak about war
Since Russian authorities took control over their national media, many people had no other choice but to collect information from only one source. Finally, some of them started to turn to Telegram, a messaging app that remained apparently independent. What is worth noting, this social messenger had already been popular before the outbreak of the war, having more than 500 mln of active users worldwide. In Russia, there are now around 38 mln monthly active Telegram users.
Apart from private messages, Telegram is widely used by Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking media, and most recently, also by western media like New York Times, Washington Post or Huffington Post.
Schwarzenegger emphasizes the meaning of his connections with Russians. He decided to use Telegram and posted a video addressed to unaware Russian citizens. The recording received thousands of views and a variety of reactions – from red heart, through fire, party popper, to thumbs down and face vomiting.
After a few days, the video gathered almost 800k views and it was forwarded more than 33k times. What is worth noticing, it was shared by a lot of Ukrainian and Russian channels, among others: Meduza, Ukraine Now, Zerkalo.io, Ukraina24tv, Russian BBC and more, which helped to pursue Schwarzenegger’s goal. This way he was able to reach more viewers than his fresh and quite small channel. The video shared on Meduza’s profile, which is a Russian- and English-language independent news website, gained more than 550k views.
Western media outruns Telegram in terms of reach
Although the role of Telegram is crucial in times of censorship in Russia, it seems that still, it is no match against the main world communication giants, now blocked in Russia. First of all, we compared the statistics of Schwarzenegger’s videos on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and Telegram between March 17th and March 21st (please note that the Facebook video was originally posted on Attn: profile and shared by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s page). Number of views was used for comparison as the most common metric, although we are aware that there are some minor differences in how views are defined across platforms. As you see on the chart, Twitter accounted for more than a half of total views, followed by Facebook. The number of video views on Twitter was 44 times higher than on Telegram, and it hit almost 35 mln.
Of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger has been building his fans and followers base on the major platforms for years. He can boast of more than 25 million followers on Facebook and over 22 million followers on Instagram. On Telegram his channel is new, with 53k followers so far. This undoubtedly helps to explain why the number of video views on Telegram was low in comparison to Twitter and Meta products. One should remember that while the biggest Facebook or Instagram profiles have hundreds of millions of followers, 1 million followers on Telegram is already a large audience.
Schwarzenegger’s video – Telegram with highest relative engagement
Engagement is another important dimension to take into consideration while analyzing social media. It refers to various reactions to messages. Bigger engagement shows that communication evokes reactions and helps to increase the reach too. The most common way to compare engagement is to use reactions. In absolute numbers, the biggest number of reactions was collected on Twitter. It was 29 times higher than on Telegram. On the other hand, the total number of reactions on Facebook and YouTube was just slightly higher than on Telegram, despite much higher reach on both platforms owned by Meta.
However, in relative numbers, Telegram just rocks. The chart below shows the engagement rate (number of reactions in relation to the number of fans/followers) for all analyzed social media channels. The conclusion is similar – although Schwarzenegger’s Telegram account is being created from scratch, the viral video that he posted met with the highest engagement. This could be an effect of the platform mechanics and algorithms, as well as shares from more popular and established channels. However, it also means that the video was simply more moving for the Telegram audience. The engagement rate of 85.6% is just stellar for today’s social media, especially if compared to 1.9% on Instagram or 0.2% on Facebook. And 25.4% on Twitter looks good too.
The viewership rate (number of views in relation to the number of fans/followers) looks similar. Again, it was much bigger on Telegram. Despite the lowest number of followers on Telegram, the video uploaded to the channel gained relatively high popularity.
The video went viral, but did it reach the target audience?
It is hard to precisely define how many Russians viewed the video but the number of shares on Ukrainian and Russian channels is impressive. What we know for sure is that the video met with great reception in the west, and that Twitter together with Meta products were at the forefront when reaching the widest audience.
Starting social media communication is a tough job also for public figures, and a successful social media profile is being built over a long period of time. Bearing in mind that Schwarzenegger’s Telegram profile has only been active for a few days now, his video engaged a lot of followers. We can only speculate that the video reach could have been bigger if Schwarzenegger’s account was created earlier and was more popular.
At the end of the day, what is also worth appreciating is that some of the western parties and powerful people like Secretary Antony Blinken expand their communication into new channels and make efforts to reach Russian society in different ways. Still, building an audience on social media is a marathon, not a sprint.
Some analysts say that Russian invasion in Ukraine has a significant impact on the whole world and that the possible iron curtain is likely to exist, dividing the media too. In such a case, setting up new Telegram channels in the West might be a new way to reach Russian citizens, kind of like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe that operated during the communist era.
The case of Schwarzenegger’s video, the first such noteworthy attempt to use Telegram potential and reach Russian society, could be an important milestone and an inspiration for next actions, especially if a new iron curtain is erected.