They sell cocaine right at the Berliner Zeitung: just 500 meters from the publishing house in Kreuzberg, a chat group offers drugs over the Internet. The Telegram app on my smartphone reveals that. Just a few streets away I see the group “Coke Cola 24/7”, decorated with a taxi and snow symbol. It is quite clear that it is a coke taxi, a drug delivery service.
Not only can normal messages be sent to friends and acquaintances via the Telegram messenger service, the app also shows unfamiliar people and groups nearby. The gateway to a parallel world in which drug dealers, prostitutes, conspiracy theorists or Nazi groups can be seen in the neighborhood. They run their business relatively undisturbed on the Internet, recognizable to everyone who uses the app.
The direct messaging service Telegram is in disrepute, it is considered the evil twin of WhatsApp. At least since lateral thinkers, Attila Hildmann or Michael Wendler spread at least confused theories via Telegram channels, the messenger has been known and is one of the most downloaded apps. A year ago, Telegram was almost exclusively known to tech-savvy people who care about data protection. But it is not entirely anonymous there.
In the Corona lockdown you can use the Telegram area search to see what is currently going on behind closed doors in Berlin districts. So I decide to use my cell phone to search.
The crime often seems just a click away. In the chat group with the snow symbol, it takes two messages before I am offered drugs. “Taxi?” I ask. “What do you need?” Is the direct answer. Good question. Um. “Cocaine?” Apparently no problem. “How much?” I prefer not to write any further here.
Instead, I first call the Berlin police. If the criminal activity at Telegram is so openly visible, why is it not monitored and stopped? A spokesman explains to me that you are bound by the code of criminal procedure. In principle, chat groups are like a privately spoken word. You shouldn’t just listen to what people are saying in their apartments. And yet the chat groups are openly accessible, so that passers-by can simply read along with a mobile phone app.
So it is possible to explore Telegram Berlin on a snowy evening during the week with a night hike. I start walking, cell phone in hand, looking for groups in the area. In Kreuzberg, only the dealers at the Schlesisches Bahnhof speak to me – offline. “Yo. Everything good? ”Directly indirect. As with Telegram chats, you only get to business in a one-on-one conversation.
I keep walking. Depending on where I am, the groups displayed in the area change. “Parties in Berlin”, “Sex Meetings”, “Alexanderplatz”, “Neukölln Weed”, “Patriots in East Berlin”. Some chats have hundreds of members, others one. In some there is a lively exchange, in others radio silence. Many groups are invisible, you have to be invited first. The secret channel “Candyland” alone, where drugs are offered, is said to have over 4,000 members. So often only the tip of the iceberg can be seen.
Still, illegal content is easy to find. Providers literally flood the public chats with advertising, it sounds like a mixture of spam in the inbox and the shopping channel: “Verified seller, delivery in Berlin. Only the best of the best. Colombian cocaine, + 81% high quality. ”I always see the same providers in the groups, they call themselves“ Snow King Valentino ”or“ Yey Winterdienst ”.
There is obviously demand. Time and again, users in the groups ask openly about drugs such as cocaine or tilidine, tranquilizers or sexual enhancers such as Viagra. You are asking for private messages.
When I asked a group where there was something to celebrate, a “private pharmacist” replied that I should write to him directly. I prefer not to. But asking around doesn’t cost anything. Police investigators, on the other hand, I was told, were just as unlikely to ask about drugs in the chat as they were from the dealer on the street.
Meanwhile, I stand next to the police station on Alexanderplatz and watch tiktok-like videos of cocaine scales in the app.
When asked, the police do not want to rule out that more illegal activities have shifted to Telegram. But there are no statistics, studies or evaluations on this. Perhaps, suspected one official, such activities were only noticed during lockdown because people are at home and use messengers.
But prosecutors and detectives also appear to have surveillance methods that they do not speak openly about. In any case, at the end of October, investigators confiscated nine Telegram groups with around 8,000 members through which drugs, weapons and forged documents were traded in Germany-wide raids.
Most of the chats I can see that night are about drugs. But even gold and currency trading, train tickets, New Year’s Eve fireworks or computer accessories are searched for and advertised without it being certain whether the seller and the goods really exist. Differences between the districts are hardly noticeable, in Mitte you only notice more prostitution that evening.
Women and men offer sexual services with explicit photos. I would be very embarrassed if a passer-by looked at my cell phone. But the users remain anonymous, you can’t see their phone numbers – and the servers on which the images are stored is not revealed by the Russian company.
Telegram rarely deletes content, according to a study by the organization Jugendschutz.net, only every tenth right-wing extremist post. Some administrators indicate in their rules of conduct that nothing illegal should be shared. “NS glorifications will not be tolerated,” says the “Patriots in East Berlin”. For this purpose, content is shared that belittles Corona, demonizes vaccinations and vilifies minorities.
Some groups, in turn, link to subgroups where you can exchange ideas without being observed. The administrators write that the main fixed-location chat is only there to make it easier to find.
At large squares there are also public groups such as “Alexanderplatz” or “Zoologischer Garten”. Visitors often have harmless small talk there, but many make explicit offers or ask for them. It is difficult to understand who the users are. In the chat “Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin” I take part in a survey. The result: the majority in the group do not study at the university.
In the “Flat Earth Society TU Berlin”, the theory of a flat earth is not discussed, but the card game UNO is played virtually. Other groups are also only looking for people interested in table tennis or board games. The administrator of “Handwerker36” states that the group name is not meant to be ambiguous.
It is not possible to check whether the business discussed at Telegram will actually take place. It is possible that boredom makes many people lose themselves in fantasies here. At least the app shows the longings in the corona isolation.
In some chats, users are still queuing up in front of techno clubs such as Berghain or KitKat. In a group chat, a student asks where the solutions for the teachers’ tests can be obtained. In the “Party in friedrichsain :)” group, one user writes: “Has something really gone over here?”, Another replies sadly: No. Some chats like “Christmas Alone” or “Lockdown Meeting / Relationship”, each with only one user and without answers, give an idea of how lonely some people are right now.
At the end of the tour, I actually learned from the Telegram group “Nightlife Berlin” that the lockdown was extended until the end of January. Good news or bad news for the nightly internet chat groups? One user commented: “Shit, but apparently necessary.”