After it was routinely used to disseminate anti-vaccine conspiracy theories and even death threats, the German government is considering a move to ban Telegram, an encrypted messaging software.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the app has also played a crucial role in mobilizing turnout at some of the most violent rallies in opposition to the German government’s Covid-19 policy.
And, with the government mulling mandating vaccination, officials are concerned that the contentious topic would elicit yet another outburst of wrath.
The BKA federal police said on Wednesday that they had formed a Telegram task force to investigate messages containing death threats or hate speech, as well as identify and prosecute their authors.
“The coronavirus pandemic in particular has contributed to people becoming radicalised on Telegram, threatening others or even posting calls for murder,” BKA president Holger Muench stated.
Interior Minister Nancy Faeser has stated that if Telegram does not assist with government attempts to combat unlawful behavior, the service may be altogether banned.
Telegram might be deleted in Germany, according to Faeser, if it fails to comply with local legislation and “all other options have failed”.
Some anti-vaccine demonstrators have utilized Telegram chat groups, which may have up to 200,000 members, to spread false information and incite violence against politicians.
After a Telegram group was used to exchange murder threats against a regional leader, German police recovered guns during searches in the eastern city of Dresden in December.
The same month, a group of coronavirus skeptics armed with burning torches gathered outside the home of Saxony state’s health minister, Petra Koepping.
A message seen by 25,000 individuals asked anyone opposed to Covid restrictions to provide the private addresses of German local MPs, politicians and other personalities” they thought were “seeking to destroy” them by using the pandemic restrictions.
Social media is used for hateful propaganda
At the height of the 2015 refugee crisis, online social networking sites Facebook and Twitter were taken over by the extreme right and used to promote hateful anti-immigrant propaganda.
In 2017, Germany approved a contentious law requiring social media behemoths to delete unlawful information and report it to authorities.
Facebook said in September that it has removed accounts, pages, and groups associated with the “Querdenker” (Lateral Thinkers), a movement that has surfaced as the most vocal opponent of the German government’s coronavirus restrictions.
However, this pushed opposing comments to other social media platforms, with Telegram reigning as the preferred app.
“Since the big platforms like Facebook no longer allow racist, anti-Semitic hate and far-right content like Holocaust denial, people who want to spread this are looking for new avenues,” Simone Rafael, digital manager for the Amadeu Antonio anti-racism charity, told the press.
“Currently, the most popular one in Germany is Telegram,” Rafael stated.
While Facebook is interested in keeping a presence in Germany and has progressively succumbed to national regulations, Telegram is not, according to the expert.
“Telegram is not cooperating with the judicial or security authorities, even on indisputably punishable and reprehensible matters such as child pornography,” Rafael stated, adding that this behavior “deprives the state of any capacity for action.”
To ban telegram is to spark further protest
The authorities might order Google or Apple to start removing Telegram from their app stores as one possibility. Users who already have the app downloaded to their mobile phones will be unaffected.
Rafael believes that the only option is to entirely prohibit the app.
This would make Germany the first Western country to ban Telegram, which was founded in 2013 by Russian brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov, two critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin who wanted to escape being monitored by their country’s secret agencies.
The business’s present headquarters are in Dubai, with its parent corporation based in the British Virgin Islands.
China, India, and Russia have already moved to ban Telegram, hence it is already prohibited or tightly controlled.
However, a move against the app might stoke even more anger in Germany.
According to digital writer Markus Reuter, such a severe action would “send a very bad signal.”
“On the one hand we are celebrating Telegram’s lack of censorship and its importance for democratic movements in Belarus and Iran, and on the other, we are then disabling the service here” in Germany, he said.