The Telegram Ban Didn't Work Because Tech Is Never Just One Thing

Potential terrorists were only a tiny percentage of the apps users.

by Adi Renaldi
18 July 2017, 10:50am

The backlash against the Indonesian government's attempt to block the popular messaging app Telegram came fast and swift. Indonesian officials said the app was a popular tool for ISIS militants to spread their beliefs and inspire lone wolf attackers. They needed to block the app to prevent future attacks like the string of terrorist suicide bombings and stabbings that recently hit the capital, government officials said. The ban, they argued, was for everyone's safety.

But then why was the internet so mad? Because the same features that make Telegram an attractive messaging app for terrorists—enhanced encryption, promises of privacy, the ability to send large files or broadcast a message to a massive group—also made it a popular choice for millions of regular Indonesian users. Telegram may be a source of ISIS propaganda, but it's also a vital medium to share GIFs, work files, and gossip.

Indonesia is home to some of the world's most-active social media users. And Indonesians were early adopters of messaging apps like Telegram and WhatsApp because they offered something regular old SMS couldn't: low-cost or free messaging and phone calls, and the ability to talk to large groups of people at once. It's features like WhatsApp's groups and Telegram's broadcasts that turned the messaging apps into something closer to a social media network.

Telegram was quickly adopted as the backup messaging app for many Indonesian users. Some used the app like a low-cost Slack, sharing large documents, coordinating with team members, and sharing important updates across an entire company. While Slack eventually charges users or companies for these kinds of services, Telegram would always remain free.

Others used the app like a private social media network. Instead of sharing links, images, or GIFs on Facebook, Twitter, or WhatsApp groups, users broadcast them to their followers through Telegram. The app was especially useful if the content wasn't exactly safe for work.

"I like to send GIFs that are funny, sometimes dirty, and I couldn't do it in WhatsApp," Afi Oktaviani told VICE. She also liked how you could "self-destruct" or wipe a conversation you're in from the entire network with a tap of your finger.

Telegram's privacy features also made it a popular choice for shit-talking, flirting, and gossip. If sliding into someone's DMs was the Instagram or Twitter equivalent of breaking off to talk privately, then shifting from WhatsApp to Telegram was the Indonesian equivalent of taking things to another, more personal, level.

Arshanti Bimalia told VICE that she would take a conversation to Telegram when it was time to talk trash, explaining that she used the app whenever she wanted to "gossip discretely." The simple act of using Telegram was a social signal that the conversation was not to be repeated.

And the country's coders loved the app because it was open-source, meaning that anyone with the right skills could program their own bots and scripts for Telegram. Onno W Purbo, an IT expert, said that Telegram bots were often used to answer people's most-common questions. One bot had more than 5,000 users at the time of the government's attempted to block, Onno said.

"The app is definitely popular for championing privacy, but there are also other unique features that you can't get from other apps" Onno told VICE. "Telegram is attractive because it can easily be programmed due to its open-source nature. For example, we can create our own bots."

The government quickly reversed the ban after Telegram's co-founder Pavel Durov said the company would block terrorism-related content in Bahasa Indonesia. "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," Durov broadcast over Telegram.

Indonesia has a track record of instituting total bans on websites and apps over a small percentage of their users or content. Vimeo, Reddit, and Tumblr have all come under fire in the past over "pornographic" content. When the local user base is small, the bans typically remain. Vimeo and Reddit are still blocked by most ISPs.

But when the site or app is immensely popular, the bans rarely last. The Tumblr ban was quickly reversed amid widespread criticism online.

So is the drama over Telegram finished? For now. Or maybe it's only beginning. Indonesia's Communications Minister Rudiantara said that all other social media sites would need to follow suit and block terrorism-related posts if they don't want to end up on a ban list. The minister said that the government was prepared to block EVERY SINGLE SOCIAL MEDIA SITE if it had to.

"If there are no improvements we must consider shutting down all platforms," Rudiantara told local media over the weekend. "Sorry, but we may be forced to shut them down because we want to maintain the idea that social media is only used for good."

So what's social media outrage without social media? We may soon find out.