The Internet was built on a promise of openness – a space of unrestricted dialogue and data-sharing. Its founder, Tim Berners-Lee, wanted the web to be “a universal linked information system”.

But this utopian vision has run into a challenge: how do you protect these ideals in a world of malicious actors? How do you balance protecting minority groups’ rights, freedom of expression and anonymity?

Social media, especially Telegram, has exacerbated this problem, by creating an unregulated space at scale. Yet the recent moves by Germany, which has openly stated it is considering sanctions or even a shutdown of the messenger, feel like tilting too far the other way.

As more and more of social and business life becomes digital – the now notorious shift to the Metaverse – it is becoming increasingly important that we find the right path forward.

More content, more problems

Content moderation is a major headache for social media platforms. Interestingly, two popular platforms, Facebook and Telegram, employ drastically different approaches in this regard. 

On the one hand, Facebook monitors and moderates content extensively even for small groups, aiming to combat hate speech, fake news, and disinformation. Telegram, on the other hand, adheres to anonymity, lack of moderation, and de facto unrestricted freedom of expression. 

Facebook’s approach seems to work for local media or neighbourhood communication purposes — with openness as a pillar of a trusting community. As one local neighbourhood group founder in Ukraine notes, Facebook is a better option for local communities than precisely because it requires people to share personal details to join.

You need a personal profile and the group admin can determine whether your presence will benefit the community. They can review a person’s posts, let alone determine whether they have anything to do with a given neighbourhood.

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Telegram is the polar opposite. You can retain almost perfect anonymity. But without revealing personal information building trust-based relationships with other group members is much harder.

It is easy to see why it became the go-to place for radicals after Facebook stepped up their content moderation. As previously reported, right-wing Americans flocked to Signal and Telegram in droves after Twitter started blocking accounts of radicals in the wake of the storming of the capitol.

More from The Fix: How Telegram harbours far-right groups

Extremist mobilisation in Eastern Europe

This problem for communities is especially evident in Eastern Europe. In Ukraine’s capital Kyiv liberal bars and clubs in the downtown hipster district of Podil were targets of a series of allegedly anti-drug-dealing attacks in autumn 2021.  

According to a local Facebook group moderator, anti-LGBT messages no longer resonate with Ukrainian society, so radical groups had to come up with new narratives to justify such attacks. Telegram is the perfect platform for them to mobilise.

In Georgia, the anti-liberal, anti-Western Alt-Info, affiliated with Georgian ultranationalists, has the largest Telegram following among the Georgian news media. Alt-Info regularly carries fake news and propaganda, and uses hate speech against migrants, LGBTQ, women, and minorities.

The platform was used to organise mass attacks on journalists in July 2021. Over 50 media professionals were injured (one of the journalists died later). In late November, Alt-Info registered as a political party.
The protest rally Alt-Info organised in Tbilisi on July 5, 2021. Photo courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Alt-Info was issued a broadcast licence in 2020, but has been repeatedly removed from social media, including Facebook, due to violating standards. Nevertheless, Alt-Info is active on YouTube, launches new Facebook pages, and urges its audiences to subscribe to its Telegram Channel.

More from The Fix: Over 50 media workers injured amid far-right violence in Tbilisi

How is Telegram involved in or with those acts of aggression? The platform is employed to mobilise people, often teenagers. Groups and channels take seconds to set up and provide complete anonymity. Even if a group or channel is reported en masse and closed down, a new one with a similar name is promptly generated.

Targeting and posting personal data often constitute the main problem. Some Telegram channels post names, photos, home addresses, telephone numbers, and other data of individuals they target. Members are thus encouraged to “deal with” them. 

Telegram appears to be regrettably slow in responding to such threats, unless they are directly threatened — for instance, by the Russian authorities after facilitating Alexei Navalny’s Smart Voting through its bot or Apple disliking animated emojis.

Telegram did play a positive role in Belarus when peaceful protesters used the platform to mobilise, and later to expose police and riot squads’ violence. It has played similar roles in other conflicts and protests around the world. But these features are a double-edged sword.

Germany acts early

The debate about how to deal with Telegram has come to a head in Germany, of all places. Specifically in the federal state of Thuringia, part of the heartland of the hard-right AfD party.

Thuringia Interior Minister George Maier openly admitted in a recent interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung that German politicians were considering sanctions against Telegram for posting calls for violence and spreading conspiracy theories. Maier argued the messenger should delete hate speech, a view shared by a number of other German ranking officials.  

Speaking to Phoenix, his Saxony counterpart Roland Wöller pointed out threats to democracy and the messenger’s incredible mobilising capacity. He suggested that Telegram be held liable for crimes facilitated through its use.

More from The Fix: Not quite Signal, not yet WeChat: can Telegram fulfil its ambitious mission?

The new Federal Interior Minister, Nancy Faeser, singled out Telegram and promised to combat incitement to hatred and calls for violence on the platform. On December 15, Dresden police reported conducting searches in relation to discussed plans to assassinate regional PM Michael Kretschmer.

In January, Faeser did not rule out the possibility of shutting down Telegram, albeit as a last resort, if all other options were exhausted. She said the messenger continues to act contrary to German law by offering an uncensored platform to far-right groups and lockdown opposers. The minister told Die Zeit that regulating Telegram was being actively discussed with EU partners.

Telegram’s founder Pavel Durov often speaks about the platform’s elevated mission of openness and freedom. But as the battle of anonymity vs. accountability, and the responsibility of platforms as content moderators, ramps up, a lofty mission just isn’t enough.

More from The Fix: Snapchat for media companies

Photo by Dima Solomin on Unsplash