By Rachel E. Greenspan
“Yes,” instructs the owner of a Telegram channel created for supporters following President Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” movement: “buy more guns and ammo.”
“The weak are falling off. Strength, faith, and bravery are necessary now, more than ever,” says another comment in the channel.
Other messages from the days after pro-Trump rioters sieged the US Capitol to protest Joe Biden’s election win were clear in their threats, sometimes directing them towards the president himself: “If Trump does nothing I hope they string him up and execute him like the spineless traitor he is.”
On Facebook or Twitter, such messages would most likely be quickly moderated and censored, but on Telegram, a private-messaging app that’s been swiftly embraced by conservatives following Trump’s social media bans, messages face less strict, if any, scrutiny. Throughout various Telegram channels reviewed by Insider, people voiced their desire for further violence and real-world action ahead of Biden’s inauguration.
Despite an FBI warning about potential violence organized online, it seems that for now, extremists and the far-right have found a new home.
A Telegram representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The far-right has gradually been moving to other platforms
Those on the far-right have been gradually leaving mainstream platforms for years in favor of places where less content moderation often allows for the spread of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and violent extremism.
Fringe right-wing users have migrated to platforms that are either explicitly used to host conversations that would be moderated elsewhere, such as Gab, or are simply profiting off of inaction, such as Telegram, which has seen skyrocketing download rates after Trump was banned from his mainstream social media profiles.
Parler, a Twitter copycat beloved by the far right since its conception in 2018, emerged as a favorite for those fleeing (or banned from) mainstream social media. Last fall, as COVID-19 and election misinformation was being moderated more heavily on mainstream platforms, many conservatives posted on Facebook telling their friends to join them on Parler.
But after Amazon Web Services cut ties with the platform on Sunday, citing violent content related to the Capitol riots, the website has been offline for days. The company has said the platform may never return.
Parler has since registered its domain with Epik, a domain registrar that the Southern Poverty Law Center said in 2019 was “cornering the market on websites where hate speech is thriving,” giving it another chance at life online. Gab, a Facebook copycat, is also registered with Epik. But in the interim, Trump’s most ardent supporters and those seeking to organize more real-world action ahead of the inauguration are finding new places to gather.
Telegram has emerged as a gathering place for the far-right, despite the platform’s stated intent to ramp up moderation
Telegram is mostly used for semi-public group-chat messaging, but it does offer some private and encrypted messaging options. Its search function makes it easy to find like-minded individuals.
In addition to right-wing extremists joining the app, the platform’s recent rise is also due to a change in WhatsApp policies. Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, said that users would have to share their data with the parent company starting February 8. That helped spike downloads for Telegram, which has similar functionality to WhatsApp. Telegram founder Pavel Durov said in a blog post on Thursday that the movement was “the largest digital migration in human history.” Conservatives and the far-right are a major part of this migration, having been moderated off of other platforms.
Telegram has said that it’s taking steps to increased moderation to address some extremist content. In the past, they’ve “generally opted to not do anything about it,” as Ali Breland of Mother Jones reported, but Telegram recently said it would crack down on neo-Nazi and white nationalist channels that had participated in “calls for violence.”
Despite Telegram’s claims, it still currently hosts large groups with thousands of people for organizations that have been linked to or perpetrated violence, including the Boogaloo Bois, the Proud Boys, and Stop the Steal.
A review of messages in these groups found daily messages with incendiary and violent language that often targets racial or ethnic groups.
Of course, the violent tone of many far-right extremists doesn’t apply to all Trump supporters headed to Telegram. In a channel called Trump Supporters Channel, which has over 140,000 subscribers, some members still baselessly claim that the insurrection was a “false flag” from antifascists or others pretending to be Trump supporters. In another channel, one member suggested Trump supporters boycott watching TV coverage of Biden’s inauguration.
In a Telegram group for followers of the Boogaloo Bois movement, the channel’s owner actually made fun of Trump for “talking about ‘the next administration.’”
But many are having trouble agreeing on their next steps following the Capitol riot. While some people say they want to riot again on Inauguration Day, others have suggested different dates, as The New York Times’ Sheera Frankel reported, which has caused confusion and disagreements.
Banning extremists from mainstream platforms can make tracking their moves difficult
While some of these more private groups may be harder for people to find, away from the recommendation algorithms on Facebook and YouTube, many have had time to prepare and warn their followers to find them elsewhere.
“Because platforms are only now taking decisive action, the alt-platforms are allowing an almost seamless transition so conversations and groups are not necessarily disrupted — only moved,” Joe Ondrak, a disinformation researcher at Logically, a fact-checking website that uses artificial intelligence to analyze misinformation and disinformation, told Insider in an email.
As Axios reported, citing Apptopia data, downloads of the app versions of Rumble, MeWe, CloutHub, and Telegram, all of which have become popular for the far-right, each more than doubled in recent weeks. Dipayan Ghosh, a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, told Axios that extremists moving to more private or, in some cases, encrypted platforms, is “absolutely concerning.”
There’s also evidence that some extremists are spreading their beliefs through even more private means. Ben Collins of NBC News reported that followers of QAnon had taken their organizing and spread of conspiracy theories to text chains. QAnon, a baseless far-right conspiracy theory alleging Trump is fighting to take down a “deep state” cabal of pedophiles and human traffickers, has thrived through believers spreading anti-mask rhetoric and other medical misinformation related to the pandemic. Since the election, the movement has shifted its efforts to focusing on voter-fraud conspiracy theories, which played a huge role in the insurrection. Twitter announced that it removed more than 70,000 QAnon-linked accounts after the Capitol riot.
Research tracking how terrorist groups responded to bans from mainstream platforms might offer some insight into how far-right extremists will fare. Amarnath Amarasingam, an associate fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, told CNN that de-platforming ISIS content “protects against” users discovering and becoming radicalized by that content. Removing “violent extremists” from mainstream platforms “will make them harder to be found and, even more importantly, to stumble upon casually,” Amarasingam said.
Still, this migration poses a challenge for researchers and law enforcement officials trying to track threats of violence. Nick Backovic, a contributing editor at Logically, told Insider that “disinformation researchers already know where the true extremist content lives.” But, he warned, “if these platforms grow, it becomes a numbers game because we have far fewer pairs of eyes on these platforms than we do on the bigger ones.”
Backovic also warned that extremists could find their ways back to mainstream platforms eventually. “If the mainstream social media platforms aren’t committed to this deplatforming long term, many of these accounts might eventually just make their way back anyway,” he said, “but if they are, it’ll change a few things in the way we monitor extremist content.”
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