Telegram has agreed to remove “radical and terrorist propaganda” in Indonesia following a public warning issued by the Indonesian government.
Telegram is increasingly being used by terrorists and ISIS sympathisers to spread propaganda and the company has been blamed for not doing enough to curtail it.
Last Friday, Reuters reported that the Indonesian government blocked access to Telegram’s mobile application and the desktop version after it found that the app was overflowing with channels that contained radical and terrorist propaganda.
The Indonesian government said in a press release that the move was a no-brainer. Visitors to such channels on Telegram were taught ways to make bombs, ways to carry out attacks and were given sermons on religious hatred, all of which were not in sync with the law.
Telegram has always marketed itself as being heavily privacy-oriented and has secured all of its content with end-to-end encryption. While this ensures that not many governments can snoop on user activities, it also helps terrorists carry out their clandestine activities with ease.
Last year, research by Terrorism Threat Monitor (JTTM), MEMRI Cyber Jihad Lab (CJL) and MEMRI Jihad revealed how Telegram had become an ‘app of choice’ for jihadi organisations, individual supporters, and private channels.
‘Content shared on Telegram channels goes beyond the mere reposting of jihadi groups’ propaganda, and includes tutorials on manufacturing weapons and launching cyberattacks, calls for targeted killing and lone-wolf attacks, and more. Some channels, such as those belonging to ISIS, show various levels of coordination among them, even using bots to aid their efforts,’ said the report.
It’s not that Telegram has been blind to such activities. Following the 2015 Paris attacks, it shut down 78 ISIS-run channels and has been doing so ever since. But the nature of the app is such that even if Telegram wanted to, it wouldn’t be able to replicate what the likes of Facebook and Twitter did. Twitter took down 360,000 terrorist-related accounts in 2016 alone.
With governments across the world taking a grim view of end-to-end encryption considering how it helps terrorists disseminate propaganda, Telegram wasn’t destined to get a free run. Last month, the Russian government warned that it would block access to Telegram after it came to light that terrorists had used the app to plan and execute the St Petersburg attack in April.
Telegram responded by stating that while end-to-end encryption would remain, it would offer basic information about the company to the Russian government to start with.
In Indonesia, the company took the government’s threat seriously and blocked channels that were reported by the government. It also agreed to set up a special team to monitor and regulate content posted on its channels.
“We are forming a dedicated team of moderators with knowledge of Indonesian culture and language to be able to process reports of terrorist-related content more quickly and accurately,” said Pavel Durov, co-founder at Telegram.
“Telegram is heavily encrypted and privacy-oriented, but we’re no friends of terrorists— in fact, every month we block thousands of ISIS-related public channels,” he added. However, as far as offering back doors to the government to track terrorist content was concerned, he didn’t budge.
Despite Telegram agreeing to work with governments to stop propaganda dissemination, it is a known fact that the company needs to do a lot more to actually stop terrorist propaganda in its tracks.
According to research conducted by Terrorism Threat Monitor (JTTM), MEMRI Cyber Jihad Lab (CJL) and MEMRI Jihad, a channel on Telegram only displays the number of subscribers but does not reveal their names, thereby making it difficult for authorities to track individual users. At the same time, users can forward information obtained from a channel to other users, thereby making it easier for terrorist organisations to spread their sermons.
Thirdly, channels on Telegram only allow one-way transmission, which means that a broadcaster can share all the information he wants with subscribers but no subscriber can confront him or engage him in a discussion. This ensures that ISIS-run channels cannot be disrupted with counter-propaganda.
Furthermore, security features in Telegram like Secret Chat, message self-destruct, and client-server/server-client encryption ensures that users have the option of keeping their interactions private and away from prying eyes. The widespread use of bots also makes it more difficult for governments to track dissemination of terrorist-related content.
‘Telegram bots do not require an additional phone number to set up, and that bot usernames always end in “bot.” The Islamic State has a handful of Telegram bots which aid it in its propaganda efforts,’ the report added.
What truly kills Telegram’s efforts is that even though it removes public channels containing terrorist-related content, it does not block user accounts and this allows terrorists to open new channels as soon as existing ones are removed or blocked.
Unless Telegram starts blocking individual users who spread radical content, reveals names of subscribers in public channels, allows two-way communication in such channels and removes features likes messages self-destruct, it will not be able to truly deal with terrorist propaganda and may suffer backlash in many more countries in the near future.