News

How Telegram Became White Nationalists' Go-To Messaging Platform

More than two-thirds of 150 far-right channels were created in 2019, an exclusive analysis by VICE News found.

by Tess Owen
07 October 2019, 4:24pm

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

News of Jarrett Smith’s arrest rattled the far-right ecosphere on the encrypted messaging app Telegram. Smith, an American soldier, was known in those circles as Anti-Kosmik 2182. One day before his arrest, he’d unwittingly shared his bomb-making expertise with an FBI agent on the app undercover.

“Fuck shit fuck,” wrote one international neo-Nazi group on their public-facing Telegram channel, alongside a link to an ABC News article about Smith. “EVERYONE CUT CONTACTS WITH anti-kosmik HE GOT ARRESTED” the group’s leader added.

“What’s Anti-Kosmik’s contact info?” someone on another channel wrote. “We need to find out whom he was talking to.”

Exiled from mainstream social media and adrift since 8chan was taken offline earlier this summer, violent right-wing extremists like Smith are taking a page out of the ISIS playbook by flocking to the encrypted messaging app Telegram. There, white nationalists are building international bridges, spreading propaganda, and encouraging lone-wolf attacks around the world.

“There is a definitive shift toward encrypted or smaller platforms where the messaging is both more vile and violent.”

VICE News analyzed 150 public-facing far-right Telegram channels and found that more than two-thirds were created in the first eight months of 2019. And not only do white nationalists have a much more robust presence on Telegram than they did two years ago, but their channels have grown more sophisticated, violent and terroristic over time.

Telegram makes a lot of sense for those groups: The app allow users to upload unlimited videos, images, audio clips and other files, and its founder has repeatedly affirmed his commitment to protecting user data from third parties — including governments.

READ: How teachers are fighting the white nationalists brainwashing their students.

“For the most hardened rank and file extremists, there is a definitive shift toward encrypted or smaller platforms where the messaging is both more vile and violent,” said Brian Levin, who leads the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

Our dataset was drawn from a recent anonymous online post that listed the handles of 375 alt-right and neo-Nazi Telegram channels. Of those, we analyzed predominantly English-language channels (many others are in Russian, Ukrainian, Italian, and German) with more than 300 subscribers in our sample.

We also categorized each channel by the type of hate dominating the conversations, like “general hate,” “Islamophobic” or “misogynistic,” to understand how the ideological bent of the far-right extremism on Telegram has intensified over the last two years.

Many of the channels that have cropped up in the last six months promote an extremely violent philosophy known as “accelerationism,” a belief that the fastest way to establish a new white civilization is to commit violent acts and undermine social stability. Those channels offer “how-to” guides for building pipe bombs, stockpiling weapons without the feds noticing, and preparing for a mass shooting.

“There’s been a shift from fantasy to action in these groups. I think we have definitely seen, especially since Christchurch, an uptick in language that is really calling adherents to action,” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, professor of education and sociology at American University and an expert in extremism, who recently testified before Congress about the threat.

Read more: The U.S. truly has no idea how many people buy guns without background checks.

The dynamics of white nationalism on Telegram in the last two years mirror how the rhetoric and actions of far-right extremists have intensified in real life.

White nationalist extremists were responsible for at least 50 deaths in the U.S. in 2018, up 35% over the previous year. This year has seen deadly attacks by white nationalists at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, a synagogue in Poway, California, and more recently, at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. The scale of the attacks thrust the threat of the global far right into the international spotlight: Congress has held at least six hearings on the threat since April, and last month U.S. Homeland Security recognized white nationalism as a serious national security threat and unveiled a new counterterrorism strategy to combat it.

“There’s been a shift from fantasy to action in these groups.”

The thriving far-right Telegram community is also a reminder that exiling extremists from mainstream social media platforms and forcing their websites, like 8chan, offline, may temporarily inconvenience the movement — but doesn’t necessarily fix the problem.

And in some cases, it might even make things worse.

“Whenever there’s single platform shutdowns or deplatforming, these clusters of hate evolve and move around, and get smarter,” said Miller-Idriss. “It’s Darwinian. It can lead to more creativity to figure out how to get around bans. In general, I think banning has never worked as a solution to stem any kind of extremism, but it can send important signals to everyone else.”

From alt-right memes to accelerationism

Ninety-four of the 150 far-right Telegram channels examined by VICE News were created in the first eight months of 2019. But there’s a spike following the March 15 attacks in Christchurch, which killed 51. In the month following at least 22 new channels cropped up in — more than VICE News counted for the entirety of 2017.

Many of the newer channels that have emerged in the months after Christchurch promote accelerationism and “Terrorwave”: a fringe online community that posts images of war and destruction edited in a hyper-stylized way.

VICE News identified 19 of the 150 channels surveyed as “accelerationist” — and 17 of those channels were created after the Christchurch attacks. One of the newer channels openly advocates white nationalist violence against law enforcement; another idolizes the white supremacist who killed nine at a historically black church in Charleston four years ago. Another is named for Fox News host Tucker Carlson. All those channels talk about a coming “boogaloo,” which is a term borrowed from anti-government groups to reference an impending civil war or government overthrow.

READ: A white nationalist managed to pass the State Department's background check.

Some of those channels intersperse U.S. news with propaganda from violent groups like Atomwaffen. Images and memes from the frontlines in Ukraine, where in recent years tens of thousands of foreigners have traveled to fight alongside far-right regiments like Azov Battalion, are especially popular. One of the largest accelerationist channels has nearly 2,500 subscribers, and posts around 10 times a day to an average daily audience of 6,400 Telegram users.

The bellicose and apocalyptic nature of some of the newer accelerationist channels is a disturbing development, especially when compared to the 18 far-right channels VICE News identified as cropping up in 2017, which were, broadly speaking, characterized by general hate (an unfocused mix of racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny), shit-posting, and alt-right memes.

One of those channels created in 2017 continues to be the largest and most prolific of the far-right on Telegram, posting on average 48 times a day and reaching more than 10,000 users daily.

But by 2018, the loose conglomerate of online trolls, racists and misogynists had found justification through two overarching conspiracy theories, which acted as the glue to an otherwise diffuse far-right ecosystem. Those theories, “white genocide” and “the great replacement”, posit that white people are at risk of being wiped out or marginalized due to immigration — ideas that were referenced at length by the shooters in Christchurch, Poway and El Paso. The Christchurch shooter even named his manifesto “The Great Replacement.”

Working within the framework of those conspiracies, several “tradlife” (which idolizes archaic gender roles and whiteness) channels appeared on Telegram last year, distributing images of European castles and blond women clutching white babies. A corresponding channel was also formed, distributing images showing the supposed decimation of Europe due to immigration.

Why extremists love Telegram

Telegram’s co-founder and CEO, Pavel Durov, dubbed “Russia’s Mark Zuckerberg,” fled his native country in 2011 amid a fight with the Kremlin over control for his social media company VKontakte. Two years later, and living in self-imposed exile, he launched Telegram with a commitment to protect user data from third parties, including governments. It was meant to appeal, in part, to people living in countries that regularly spy on civilians.

But Durov’s commitment to privacy has been repeatedly put to the test over the years by ISIS, who’ve made no secret of their reliance on the app for recruiting, radicalizing, and even planning attacks. After the 2015 ISIS attacks in Paris, which was organized partly on Telegram, Durov said they removed 80 public-facing pro-ISIS channels. More recently, they softened their policy on cooperating with governments on suspected terrorists, although as of August they haven’t been asked to do so.

Microsoft and Apple have also blacklisted some of the most terroristic channels, meaning that they can’t be accessed via the Telegram phone app.

Telegram has also drawn extremists by setting itself apart from other platforms like WhatsApp by allowing users to share unlimited photos, videos, and other files. This is crucial for extremist groups because many rely on propaganda in the form of literature, audio clips and videos.

READ: Eco-Fascism: the racist theory that inspired the El Paso and Christchurch shooters.

What’s more, while imageboard sites like 8chan are pretty limited functionally, Telegram offers myriad chat options. The 150 public-facing channels identified by VICE News likely constitute only a sliver of the far-right ecosystem on Telegram. And in addition to channels, which are useful for recruitment, users can also form private channels that require a “join link” to enter. There are also public groups, private groups, and even “supergroups” that can accommodate up to 300,000 members, plus the option of one-to-one chats.

Additionally, public channels can promote other channels’ posts or handles, which enables cross-pollination of memes and propaganda. Some Telegram users maintain multiple channels spanning several far-right ideologies; for example, the creator of a popular white nationalist meme channel also maintains a misogynistic channel and far-right pro-abortion channel.

“They’re building this infrastructure, and working on carving out their own little network for people who subscribe to far-right ideologies,” said Joshua Fisher-Birch, a research analyst at the Counter Extremism Project.

That means that all of the channels, from hardcore accelerationist to ones churning out pictures of Gothic cathedrals in Europe or anti-Semitic memes, play an essential role in propping up the ideas driving the modern far right. “These threads reinforce ideas of the great replacement, invasions, and incursions,” said Miller-Idriss.

Public channels are also useful for recruiting curious travelers, and there are examples where Telegram may have unwittingly triggered the “rabbit hole” effect, where users easily navigate to increasingly extreme channels through the app.

In early September, Telegram recommended a white nationalist channel on the third page of its “suggested channels” to join. It recently forwarded a post from a different pro-white “news” channel, about how “Western civilization is the collective property of the race which built it,” which recently promoted a post from an Atomwaffen-affiliated group seeking recruits in Europe and the U.S.

In another example, one of Telegram’s “featured” channels includes one that is dedicated to the bizarre pro-Trump conspiracy theory QAnon. The QAnon channel routinely shares posts from an anti-Semitic conspiracy channel, which in turn promotes content from overtly and violently racist channels.

READ: QAnon has already made its way from 4chan to two Republicans' campaigns.

Finally, Telegram also promotes a neo-Nazi channel as one of its 61 recommended “self-development” groups to join, alongside channels like “Inspiring Thoughts” and “Leadership Quotes.” Telegram did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.

The far-right presence on Telegram has remained high since spiking in March after the Christchurch mosque attacks: 82 of the 150 channels in VICE News’ dataset were created between then and now.

The Christchurch shooter posted his manifesto on 8chan before the attack, subjecting the once-obscure website to intense international scrutiny. Then, both the Poway synagogue shooter and the El Paso shooter copycatted him in sharing their screeds on the imageboard site. 8chan was finally taken offline after the El Paso shooting in August.

It’s hard to say for sure whether the increasing scrutiny of 8chan accelerated the growth of white nationalism on Telegram; attempts to formalize its presence on the app were already underway before it was taken down.

But about one week before the El Paso shooting, someone created a public-facing channel on Telegram named for 8chan. The apparent goal of the channel was to consolidate all the public channels under one roof, and link them back to 8chan — essentially building a bridge between the two platforms. The creators of the channel publish fortnightly “leaderboard” reports (which they’ve compiled since May), listing 95 far-right channels in total, alongside their number of subscribers and the percentage that membership grew or fell compared to the previous two-week period. It demonstrates a level of sophistication that’s not usually associated with the far right.

Telegram may be a safe harbor for far-right extremists for the time being, but some of its ringleaders are skeptical it’ll last — and are telling their followers that if they want to be resilient, they need a contingency plan, in the event that they’re cut off from the app.

“We are enjoying Telegram for now, but this won't last forever,” one accelerationist channel recently wrote. “We'll be the ones booted first, then followed by those less extreme… Make sure you spend this time to do realistic and safe networking so that you can be ready for the day when we have no way to reach our comrades through the internet.”

Illustration by Hunter French.