Germany Has Picked a Fight With Telegram

Germany Has Picked a Fight With Telegram


In December, around a dozen anti-lockdown protesters gathered together on a cobbled street in the eastern German town of Grimma. It was not their chant of “peace, freedom, no dictatorship” that put the new German government on the edge, but their location — outside the private home of Saxony’s regional health minister, Petra Köpping. The demonstration was interpreted as a targeted attack on democracy and its elected officials, made even more menacing by the protesters’ flaming torches, a symbol that has been associated with white nationalists since the 1920s.

In the aftermath, Köpping’s team say they suspect the protest against coronavirus restrictions had roots in the messaging app Telegram — where a video of the demonstration circulated afterward and where the minister had previously received threats. Köpping herself believes there is a direct link between Telegram and what happened. “People obviously used the app to meet up,” she says. Telegram did not respond to a request for comment.

Photograph: Sebastian Kahnert / Getty Images

German authorities believe the Telegram has become the thread that ties together a series of violent incidents involving Germany’s anti-lockdown movement. Shortly after the protest outside Köpping’s home, armed German police said they searched five properties linked to a Telegram group where members discussed plans to assassinate Saxony’s prime minister, Michael Kretschmer, in retaliation for Covid restrictions. But when officials asked Telegram to tackle violence in the app’s public channels, they were met with silence. Letters, suggestions of fines, a Telegram-dedicated task force, and even a threat to ban the entire platform have all gone unanswered. Germany’s struggle to enforce its authority over the Telegram is a warning for other governments currently drafting their own online safety laws: Even if lawmakers issue new rules, there is no guarantee platforms will follow them.

Telegram is one of Germany’s most popular online messengers. Around 7.8 million people in the country used the app in 2019, according to Statista. A more recent January survey by the official Federal Network Agency found 16 percent of people who regularly use online messenger services use Telegram — a 6 percent gain from 2019 (although still far below the most popular service, WhatsApp, which claimed a 93 percent share) . Researchers have complained about extremists on Telegram for years. But during the pandemic, far-right follower numbers exploded in Germany, says Jakob Guhl, a research manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a nonprofit that analyzes online extremism. Pre-pandemic, the biggest far-right figures had around 40,000 followers, he says. Now that number is above 200,000.

“Germany’s anti-lockdown movement strikes me as relatively large, fairly energized, and quite radically compared to other countries,” says Guhl. He argues that it connects groups that might not usually fit together. “It includes some people who were part of previously existing far-right movements but, more interestingly, it unites quite a lot of anti-vaxxers, people with interest in alternative lifestyles, alternative medicine, conspiracy theorists, people who adhere to QAnon.” On Telegram, that results in far-right content mixing with coronavirus conspiracies, such as claims that the virus is a pretext to install an authoritarian state and calls for violence against politicians. “It’s taken me by surprise how quickly people who hadn’t been previously involved in ideological movements have been radicalized and quite how extreme and frequent the calls for violence are,” Guhl says.

Telegram’s silence on the issue of violent anti-lockdown content is infuriating a country that strongly believes free expression has limits, and legislates accordingly. In 2018, Germany began enforcing the Network Enforcement Act, or Netz DG, which aimed to make speech and symbols that were illegal offline — such as swastikas, Holocaust denial, or inciting violence against minority groups — illegal online too. Most social media platforms complied and even hired more German moderators to block content that was considered illegal locally. There was initial confusion about whether the law applied to Telegram when other messenger apps, such as WhatsApp, were exempted because they were considered “individual communication services.” In 2021, the Justice Ministry publicly clarified that the Telegram was required to follow the rules and told German media it had launched two fine proceedings against the app for noncompliance. Although the app could be used to communicate one-on-one, the ministry said, it also gave people the ability to set up groups that had over 200,000 members or create channels for broadcasting to unlimited audiences.



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