Encrypted messaging app Telegram has become a hub for far-right propaganda and terrorist content, but its owners haven’t taken any action against these new users, Marc Daalder reports.
The far-right is congregating on a private messaging app to share memes, debate ideology and organise terror attacks, and the app’s Russian owners don’t seem to care.
Telegram allows users to send encrypted messages to one another, create public-facing channels and have private chatrooms with hundreds or thousands of members. It was created by a pair of Russian tech entrepreneurs and was based in Dubai as recently as 2017.
More than 365 million people have signed up for Telegram and as of March 2018 it had 200 million monthly active users.
The size of the platform comes with drawbacks, however. Its increasing popularity and fierce dedication to privacy has made it a hub for terrorist content in the past. Now, with the 8chan messageboard indefinitely shut down, the global far-right has turned to a loose collection of public and private Telegram channels to spread their message.
Far-right presence on Telegram growing
The far-right presence on Telegram has received attention in recent weeks because of a channel hosting a list of prominent left-leaning Jews. The list was thought to be too controversial by the moderators of 4chan, where people regularly glorify the alleged Christchurch shooter, and it was also kicked off Twitter.
Repeated requests for comment by other media outlets have gone unanswered and Newsroom was unable to contact anyone from Telegram. However, the list has been on Telegram since August 21 and has not been taken down.
In the interests of full disclosure, I am one of the people on the list.
The list is only the tip of the far-right iceberg on Telegram. Overall, according to statistics compiled by a far-right user who is trying to centralise the various extremist groups on the platform, there are more than 100,000 subscribers to far-right Telegram channels. In the two week period from September 2 to September 16, this figure grew by 574 every day.
It is unclear how many individuals this number represents, as someone subscribing to two different far-right channels would be counted twice. The top channel has 4,778 subscribers and recently posted a video showing how to topple a radio tower.
Explicit terrorist content prevalent
In another channel, users share memes glorifying the alleged Christchurch mosque shooter and the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter. The video and manifesto of the alleged Christchurch gunman are widely available on Telegram, in violation of New Zealand law.
One channel is dedicated to terrorist “aesthetic” and instructs members in how to carry out terror attacks. Newsroom reported the channel to Telegram on September 27 but it remains up.
Ben Elley, an expert in digital radicalism and the far-right, says that all extremist content is dangerous, regardless of whether or not it provides specific terrorist instructions.
“8chan was dangerous without anybody really going on there to learn how to make bombs or learn how to do terrorism,” he said. “What they were learning there was an extremist ideology that dehumanises people, that makes people feel like they’re part of a big race war, a battle for culture. That’s the part that makes someone into a person who can commit terror.”
“Radicalising someone in that manner is the hard part. Finding out then, from the dark web or wherever else, how to make a bomb or how to commit a mass shooting is actually pretty easy. That’s not something that the far-right is that concerned with, they just want to get people radicalised.”
Not Telegram’s first terrorist rodeo
Telegram has previously served as a terrorist breeding ground. In 2015, the Islamic State used the app to communicate with potential recruits and coordinate the ground war in Iraq and Syria.
In 2016, French officials alleged that Telegram was used by two IS terrorists to coordinate a terror attack in Normandy.
Although Telegram stated in November 2015 that it would block public channels advocating terrorism, the far-right has gotten around this through a technicality. Instead of directly urging people to engage in terrorism, users write that it “would be a shame if someone [engaged in a specific terrorist activity in a specific location]”.
It may be this plausible deniability that has stopped Telegram from removing their posts – or the platform may just not care.
During anti-government protests in Iran in 2017, Telegram shut down a channel used to coordinate action by opposition politicians. It said the channel had violated its rules against violence and terrorism.
Internet Service Providers and search engines in Russia, India, Iran and Indonesia have blocked access to Telegram for various periods of time, citing the use of the app by terrorists.
Last week, the FBI arrested a US soldier who allegedly threatened to bomb CNN and Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke after an elaborate sting operation that involved corresponding with the suspect on Telegram.