Telegram's mammoth task of taking down terrorist content

Popular messaging app is the 'main social media platform' for ISIL members to communicate with each other

FILE PHOTO: Men pose with smartphones in front of a screen showing the Telegram logo in this picture illustration November 18, 2015. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/File Photo
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It is no secret that the encrypted messaging application Telegram has been the “app of choice” for ISIL and other terrorist groups for years.

That the app has continued to provide a secure platform for terrorists to coordinate their savage activities calls into question why Telegram has not done more to stop the proliferation of terrorist activities via its channels.

The founder and chief executive of Telegram, Pavel Durov, has so far refused to share user data with regulators, citing Telegram's confidentiality policy and users' privacy.

On Sunday, Mr Durov said his company was removing public channels in Indonesia that provided “terrorist related content” following threats by Jakarta to completely shut down the messaging platform in the country.

“There are many channels on their service that contain radicalism propaganda, terrorism, hatred, provocation and instructions to assemble bombs … and other contents that are against the Indonesia law,” the communications and information ministry said on Friday, when it asked internet service providers in Indonesia to block access to several Telegram channels on the web.

Read more: Telegram will shut down terror-related channels in Indonesia

The world’s largest Muslim-majority country has been battling a resurgence of radicalisation on the home front, especially after ISIL sympathisers carried out several low-level attacks in Indonesia in the past 18 months.

“Telegram has become the main social media platform for ISIS members and followers primarily because, so far, Telegram administrators do not usually shut down ISIS accounts, and when they do, the frequency is far less when compared to other social media accounts,” according to the International Centre for the Study of Violent Extremism, a research institution based in Washington.

The centre said in a May report that even though ISIL uses different platforms to distribute its propaganda posts, the most reliable medium for their purposes has been Telegram.

Bahrun Naim, a top Indonesian ISIL militant fighting with the extremist group in Syria, has been contacting aspiring terrorists in his home country via apps such as Telegram.

According to the Long War Journal website, run by the Washington-based think tank Foundation for Defence of Democracies, Naim has been giving bomb-making advice to aspiring terrorists in his country and using Telegram to help them select targets for attack.

Alleged militants arrested in Indonesia have also told authorities they used Telegram to communicate with one another and received orders — including from Naim — through the app to carry out attacks.

Read more: ISIL lures children with alphabet apps via Telegram

Telegram’s Mr Durov says that his company blocks thousands of ISIL-related channels a month.

But with 100 million active users every month, 350,000 new users every day and 15 billion messages generated each day, the task of removing every terror-related account appears insurmountable, at least for now.