In December around a dozen anti-blocking protesters gathered on a cobbled street in the East German city of Grima. It was not their chanting for “peace, freedom, no dictatorship” that pushed the new German government to the brink, but their location outside the private home of Saxony’s regional health minister, Petra Köping. The demonstration was interpreted as a targeted attack on democracy and its elected officials, made even more threatening by protesters’ torches, a symbol associated with white nationalists since the 1920s.
Koeping’s team later said they suspected that the protest against the restrictions on the coronavirus was rooted in the Telegram messaging app – where video of the demonstration was then distributed and where the minister had previously received threats. Köping herself believes that there is a direct link between the Telegram and what happened. “People obviously used the app to meet,” she said. Telegram did not respond to a request for comment.
German authorities believe the Telegram has become the thread that connects a series of violent incidents involving the anti-German blockade movement. Shortly after the protest in front of Köping’s home, German armed police said they had searched five properties linked to a group at the Telegram, where members were discussing plans to assassinate Saxon Prime Minister Michael Kretschmer in retaliation for Covid’s restrictions. But when employees asked Telegram to deal with the violence in the app’s public channels, they were greeted with silence. Letters, proposals for fines, a special working group on Telegram and even a threat to ban the entire platform went unanswered. Germany’s struggle to impose its power over the Telegram is a warning to other governments that are currently drafting their own online security laws: even if lawmakers issue new rules, there is no guarantee that the platforms will follow them.
Telegram is one of the most popular online messengers in Germany. About 7.8 million people in the country used the app in 2019, according to Statista. A recent January study by the official Federal Network Agency found that 16% of people who regularly use online messenger services use Telegram – 6% profit from 2019 (although it is still far below the most popular WhatsApp service which claims a 93% share). . Researchers have been complaining about Telegram extremists for years. But during the pandemic, the number of far-right followers grew in Germany, said Jakob Gul, head of research at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a non-profit organization that analyzes online extremism. Before the pandemic, the largest far-right figures had about 40,000 followers, he said. Now that number is over 200,000.
“The movement against the blockade of Germany seems to me to be relatively large, quite vigorous and quite radical compared to other countries,” Gul said. He says he connects groups that don’t usually fit together. “It includes some people who were part of pre-existing far-right movements, but more interestingly, it brings together a lot of anti-waxers, people who are interested in alternative lifestyles, alternative medicine, conspiracy theorists, people who adhere to QAnon. In the Telegram, this leads to confusing far-right content with coronavirus conspiracies, such as claims that the virus is a pretext for establishing an authoritarian state and calls for violence against politicians. “I am surprised at how quickly people who have not previously participated in ideological movements are radicalized and how extreme and frequent calls for violence are,” Gul said.
Telegram’s silence on the issue of violent content against blocking infuriates a country that strongly believes that free expression has limits and is passing legislation. In 2018, Germany began implementing the Network Implementation Act or Netz DG, which aimed to make speech and symbols that are illegal offline – such as swastikas, Holocaust denial or incitement to violence against minority groups – also illegal online. Most social media platforms complied and even hired more German moderators to block content that was considered illegal at the local level. Initially, there was confusion as to whether the law applied to Telegram when other instant messaging applications, such as WhatsApp, were released because they were considered “individual communication services”. In 2021, the Ministry of Justice publicly clarified that Telegram was obliged to comply with the rules and told the German media that it had launched two fines against the non-compliance application. Although the app can be used for one-on-one communication, the ministry said, it also allows people to create groups with more than 200,000 members or create broadcast channels to an unlimited audience.