Facebook decided this month that it would no longer tolerate a host of far-right figures, including InfoWars’ Alex Jones and anti-Muslim extremist Laura Loomer, and banned them from its platforms. Loomer and her fellow travelers had gained notoriety using Facebook and Instagram to stoke hate and promote groundless conspiracies. Loomer used her last gasp on Instagram to ask supporters to follow her on Telegram, a Russian-owned encrypted messaging service that for years was the Islamic State militant group’s app of choice.
Telegram is, in many ways, a natural next step for Loomer and those who share her views. White nationalists and conspiracy theorists increasingly face the same problem that plagued ISIS supporters just a few years ago: platforms cracking down on extremism amid public and political pressure. Many high-profile members of the far-right have therefore turned to Telegram, just as ISIS militants did after being thrown off major social media networks.
“We saw a very similar dynamic with Islamist extremists when their materials and accounts were closed down,” said Julia Ebner, a research fellow at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue who studies extremism. “Gradually, Telegram became their new safe haven and their way of coordinating and communicating among each other.”
Telegram was created in 2013 by Pavel Durov, a 34-year-old tech magnate who founded Russia’s top social media platform VKontakte and is roughly the country’s equivalent to Mark Zuckerberg. But unlike Zuckerberg, Durov is an ardent online privacy advocate who said he started Telegram to stop Russian security services from spying on communications. He fled Russia in 2014 and is now a citizen of the Carribean nation of St. Kitts and Nevis, where he is largely immune to political pressure and has publicly rejected the notion of giving law enforcement any access to his app.
Although Telegram has shut down ISIS channels and removed overtly violent content in the past, researchers of radicalism say the company has neither the appetite nor resources to provide any real degree of moderation for extremist content. Meanwhile, its mix of public channels that anyone with an account can view, private chat groups, direct messaging and features such as auto-deleting messages make Telegram an appealing destination for extremists.
ISIS supporters and militants began flocking to Telegram around 2015. More recently, researchers say, they’ve been joined by a range of far-right groups and activists from around the world ― some of whom have gained significant followings on the app. British anti-Muslim extremist Tommy Robinson amassed nearly 40,000 subscribers to his Telegram channel after Facebook and Instagram banned him from their platforms in February. Others who have been on Telegram for some time, such as Austria’s chapter of the white nationalist Identitarian Movement, use the app both to post propaganda on public channels and to coordinate disinformation campaigns in private messaging groups.
Along with the channels of high-profile far-right media figures such as former Breitbart columnist Milo Yiannopoulos and InfoWars contributor Paul Joseph Watson, there are parts of Telegram that more closely resemble the gutters of the internet like 4chan and 8chan. Fascist and neo-Nazi groups in some channels openly share anti-Semitic memes and extremist videos such as the shooter’s own recording of the massacres at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. When a group does get taken down, as happens with ISIS channels, new ones quickly take their place.
In some smaller public groups and in private groups, members have more personal connections and guidance is shared on how to carry out disinformation campaigns and set up fake social media accounts. Terrorist manifestos and even instructions on how to 3D-print weapons freely circulate on the app, said Valerio Mazzoni, a terrorism analyst for Italian security consultants IFI Advisory and contributor to the European Eye on Radicalization outlet.
But for both Islamist and far-right extremists, there are limits to how effective they can be on Telegram as opposed to larger social media platforms. The app may allow such figures and groups to disseminate their views more freely, but it also tends to cordon them off from more mainstream audiences and requires those who do have Telegram accounts to actively seek out their channels. None of the far-right personalities has been able to reach anywhere near the same-sized audience on Telegram that they did on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.
What Telegram is good at though, researchers say, is rapidly organizing supporters around a cause or protest. After a Syrian man killed a Cuban German citizen in the city of Chemnitz, Germany, last year, massive far-right rallies erupted in the city and then deteriorated into anti-immigrant riots and racist mob violence. One of the driving forces behind the events in Chemnitz was Telegram, said Ebner, who watched as Germany’s far-right channels on the platform quickly began sharing protest locations or calling for demonstrations.
The far-right’s migration to Telegram is also only part of a wider fragmentation, where extremists are turning to a range of messaging apps, private chat forums and online newsletters as they face bans from larger social networks.
“They’re very adaptive to new technology,” said Gabriel Weimann, an expert on extremism at the University of Haifa and a guest professor at the University of Maryland.
“Telegram is just the beginning,” Weimann said. “They are going to move deeper and deeper into the dark web.”
These methods of communication may not offer the same opportunities for fundraising and gaining mainstream influence, but extremists can continue to incite hate among smaller and more radical groups of followers in these spaces that are harder for researchers, journalists and law enforcement to track.