A trans-national network of Telegram channels spreading disinformation about the 2020 U.S. elections is connected to a U.K.-based digital media project known for its white nationalist and antisemitic content, a DFRLab investigation has found.
TRR Media created several channels on the encrypted messaging platform during the week of the elections that served as repositories and aggregators of disinformation about the integrity of the electoral process. The effort assisted viral claims of voter fraud made by right-wing social media personalities, fringe conspiratorial communities, and U.S. President Donald Trump. The posts spread to millions of people and resulted in thousands of new followers to TRR Media’s social media accounts.
President Trump and his administration have sought to sow doubt in the results of the recently concluded U.S. elections, which domestic cybersecurity officials have called “the most secure elections in American history.” TRR Media’s efforts highlight how foreign disinformation actors seeking to increase their own followings may be fueling further political disarray by exploiting the high domestic demand for misinformation in the United States. In turn, the outgoing administration’s bid to rally its domestic political base may serve to legitimize extremists abroad, creating a self-sustaining disinformation ecosystem.
While the popularity of Telegram in the US is nowhere near as high as apps such as Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp, it has attracted increasing numbers of users from the far right. As VICE News reported in October 2019, more than two-thirds of publicly accessible far-right Telegram channels were created that year alone. VICE also cited the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism’s Brian Levin, who said, “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.”
The active dissemination of disinformation alleging massive voter fraud has undermined public confidence in the legitimacy of the results. A November 2020 poll released by Pew Research Center showed that there remains a vast partisan gulf between Republican and Democrat voters “over nearly all aspects of the election and voting process, including whether their own votes were counted accurately.” Post-election polling results from other U.S. research centers, including a poll from Monmouth University, a YouGov/Economist poll, and a Morning Consult/Politico poll, supported these findings: in the MC/P poll, for example, while a majority of voters (6 in 10) accepted the victory of President-Elect Joe Biden, approximately 4 in 10 expressed doubt that the election had been conducted in a free and accurate manner.
Extremists of the world unite
A growing number of far-right and fringe social media influencers have sought to capitalize on the increased interest among Trump supporters for allegations of voter fraud in key battleground states. One of the earliest movers was TRR Media, a UK-based, far-right organization presenting itself as an independent media outlet. It maintains a number of assets online, including public Telegram channels, Facebook pages, Twitter profiles, Instagram pages, and YouTube streams run by the moderators of the Telegram channels and affiliated with the organization.
A brief examination of the network’s posting history prior to the recent presidential election made clear TRR media’s amplification of racist and antisemitic tropes associated with the more extremist fringes of the transatlantic far right movement. The majority of content amplified on the network since its inception focused on the demonization of the immigrants and ethnic minorities, as well as the peddling of the “white replacement” conspiracy theories shared by a number of right-wing extremist movements in Europe and the United States.
Hope Not Hate, a U.K.-based anti-racism advocacy group, reported in 2019 that members of the organization had established links with right-wing populist United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) candidates. Further reporting by Resisting Hate, another UK-based advocacy group, examined several individuals associated with TRR Media that were also linked to far-right street hooligan group Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA). A November 2019 social media post uploaded to VKontakte from the official account of Britain First, another UK-based far-right organization, provides further open-source evidence that a social media influencer associated with TRR Media appeared to have connections with the European far-right Identitarian movement.
During election week, the TRR Media network pivoted from amplifying extremist white nationalist and antisemitic content to promoting viral falsehoods targeting the U.S. elections.
Beginning November 4, 2020, with the winner of the presidential election initially unclear, the group began to leverage its established presence on Telegram and other major social media platforms to amplify viral and unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud. Much of the content disseminated constituted of viral falsehoods debunked by credible news outlets and fact-checking outlets, including Sharpiegate, allegations of discarded military ballots in Pennsylvania, rumors of voting irregularities in Michigan and Wisconsin, and conspiracy theories regarding the manipulation of electronic voting systems used in some states, amongst others.
In line with this approach, the moderators regularly cross-posted content derived from social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, Parler), online messaging boards (4chan, 8kun), as well as video and livestreaming platforms (YouTube, DLive). They also merged links from right-wing news outlets and fringe sites, including Gateway Pundit, Judicial Watch, Fox News, and The Federalist, among others, effectively blurring the distinction between the various forms of media.
Some of the most popular posts shared via the network included allegations of voter fraud made by the Trump campaign and its associates via their official social media accounts, highlighting how the president’s attempt to rally his domestic base feeds into the narratives of far-right extremists, both domestic and foreign.
The DFRLab conducted analysis of the user traffic on the TRR Media network on Telegram from October 1 to November 30, 2020, using the social media analytics tool Popsters. The primary voter fraud community, consisting of several channels, experienced a spike on November 4, 2020 and sustained patronage for the following week. However, once viewership began to diminish, other radical communities saw a considerable uptick in traffic. Because much of the content shared on the voter fraud dedicated pages consisted of cross-posts from the TRR Media-managed extremist pages, it is likely that viewers simply followed content back to its primary source.
Many of the radical communities experienced their peaks as the voter fraud channels experienced decline. Since November 4, the viewership to these communities has diminished significantly since their peaks, with one group amassing 1,370,363 views on November 23. It appears, however, that these channels have managed to captivate and retain a relatively large audience after the election, as shown by sustained view counts that are visibly greater than they were prior to the election.
Cross-posting to gain following
TRR Media’s operation constitutes a multi-platform campaign aimed at funneling sympathetic audiences from different major social media platforms and messaging boards onto Telegram channels and YouTube accounts connected to TRR Media. Consequently, the tone, tenor, and style of the posts sharing the links to the channels are crafted to suit the different audiences frequenting the targeted platforms.
In the month prior to the election, links directing traffic to TRR Media’s The Reality Report Telegram channel were spotted on 4chan’s “politically incorrect” (/pol/) board 78 times from October 8 to November 1, 2020. The posts all adhered to a specific format and cryptic presentation warning anonymous users to anticipate media malfeasance in the days leading up to the election. Many of the posts also engaged with Pizzagate, tying Vice President Elect Kamala Harris to the debunked conspiracy theory alleging a child trafficking scheme.
Though it is hard to gauge the effectiveness of the 4chan recruiting effort to draw likeminded users off anonymous message boards and into more concealed Telegram communities, the campaign does further indicate the audience to which the network targeted its messaging.
Within the Telegram ecosystem, the group used its “USVoterFraud” channel to direct traffic elsewhere in their network. Having successfully typo-squatted the unique and relevant channel name “USVoterFraud,” the network operators publicized their affiliated Telegram communities within the quickly growing voter fraud discussion to draw audiences deeper into the network of white supremacy, antisemitism, and conspiracy.
Interspersed among the voter fraud content, cross posts from other communities were seen brigading conspiratorial messaging that pushed well beyond the alleged electoral fraud discussion. A number of recurring posts sought to push users towards more fringe communities on the far right. One of the most publicized communities within the USVoterFraud channel, with 120 unique appearances, was dedicated to “Cultural Marxism,” an antisemitic conspiracy theory alleging a cultural cabal focused on subverting “Western values.”
This strategy helped the channels accrue thousands of new subscribers over the course of the election while also creating a self-sustaining ecosystem populated by right-wing sympathizers, at which point more extreme ideologies were peppered throughout the discourse. The community continues to serve as a conduit for drawing susceptible audiences into increasingly radical and insidious discourse amongst extremist and fringe communities on the political right.
Given TRR Media’s prior association with far-right extremist groups and political parties in the United Kingdom, the group’s decision to pivot from sharing more overt white supremacist and antisemitic content towards disinformation targeting the U.S. elections highlights the ability of far-right extremist groups to respond quickly to mainstream political developments across the world and leverage their presence to capture a diverse and transnational audience of right-wing sympathizers online.