Berlin, Feb 12: The messaging app Telegram blocked dozens of channels in Germany, including an account belonging to a prominent conspiracy theorist, the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper reported on Friday.
The move comes amid increased pressure from the German government and authorities, who have expressed concern over groups using the app to spread disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic and organize protests that have turned violent.
Telegram closes contested channels
Telegram shut down a total of 64 accounts, the Süddeutsche Zeitung reported, citing security sources.
It is “the first time” Telegram has taken action against the spread of “hate and incitement” on its platform in Germany, the paper noted.
The closure of the accounts came after pressure from the Interior Ministry and the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), who entered into discussions with the heads of the app in an effort to flag issues with several channels.
One of the Telegram channels that was closed down belonged to conspiracy theorist and former vegan chef Attila Hildmann, who spread antisemitic messages as well as disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic to his followers on the platform, the paper reported.
It was not immediately clear which other channels were affected.
‘The pressure is working’
Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said she would continue her push to get Telegram to cooperate with German laws.
The interior minister told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that there are increasing waves of “hate” on the platform, as well as “threats against people and against our democracy.”
“Telegram must no longer be an accelerant for right-wing extremists, conspiracy theorists and other agitators. Death threats and other dangerous messages of hate must be deleted and have legal consequences,” she said.
“The pressure is working,” Faeser added.
According to the paper, the German government grew increasingly frustrated with Telegram following several failed bids to remove hate speech and accounts issuing threats from the platform.
Initially, German officials struggled to track down the company’s official address to send official complaints. Interior Minister Faeser subsequently threatened to shut down Telegram in Germany and said the company could face massive fines of up to €55 million ($62.4 million).
Under German law, social media giants must remove illegal content — such as hate speech and death threats — or face large fines. Platforms such as Telegram, however, have been harder to pin down than more mainstream sites like Twitter and Facebook.
Growing extremism concerns
Telegram, which is based in Dubai, is a popular app which provides encrypted messaging and has so far largely evaded regulatory oversight.
Experts in Germany have increasingly voiced concerns that the app is becoming a hotbed for extremist activity and radicalization.
Far-right and extremist groups have increasingly turned to alternative platforms like Telegram after being kicked off of major social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Telegram has become a popular platform for COVID conspiracy theorists, antivaxxers, and members of the “Lateral Thinkers” (Querdenker) movement that oppose pandemic curbs.
Telegram has been used to organize protests against COVID restrictions that have turned violent at times. Messages threatening German politicians and other public figures have also been shared on the platform.
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