But through some new sense of determination, Telegram has finally kicked Islamist militants off their main hub, marking a level of disruption for the extremist groups never seen before. This raises a new question: Will Telegram apply the same determination to the equally dangerous far-right terrorists on its platform?
Telegram, launched in 2013 by self-described libertarian Pavel Durov, was designed to offer encrypted communication with an emphasis on protecting privacy and avoiding censorship. That has made it popular in autocratic countries such as Russia, pulling in hundreds of millions of active users. But it has also attracted bad actors who want to organize in the shadows. And unlike platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, Telegram has long resisted cracking down on extremist groups using its services.
That changed most dramatically in mid-November when, with the help of European law enforcement, Telegram began targeting individual users and administrators, hitting everyone from the Islamic State’s central media workers to its supporters distributing its content. Telegram seems to have employed a widely aimed algorithm that targeted not only these Islamist militants but also journalists and researchers embedded in these communities. Even backup accounts were deleted, and when operatives and supporters created new ones, they were quickly removed, as well.
Terrorist networks started panicking. Many didn’t have a backup platform to Telegram and lost many contacts. In the Nov. 28 edition of its Naba newsletter, the Islamic State urged steadfastness from its media distributors: “Just as jihad is ongoing until the end of time and nothing can stop it.”
The group’s network of aligned media groups urged the same, issuing a counter-campaign of threats and incitements against Telegram and all of the West. “You can’t delete the Khilafah [Caliphate],” read one post by an Islamic-State-linked media group. Another post by the group threatened: “Your campaign on Telegram will complicate the situation, the ‘Ansar’ [Islamic State supporters] will spread everywhere, the goal will become hidden, and it will spread the thought secretly.”
Without an online base, the extremist groups are now strewn across applications like TamTam, Riot, Rocket Chat, Threema and Conversation as they scramble to find a new platform. The Internet is a critical lifeblood for terrorists, so they are more disoriented online now than they have been since they embraced social media in the early 2010s. This is progress, no doubt.
But why did it take so long for Telegram to act with such aggression? And will it do the same against the equally threatening neo-Nazi terrorists on its platform?
After the March 15 attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, the far-right embraced Telegram as its main hub. The far-right’s migration to the platform has given it far more outreach tools than it had on other platforms in its orbit, such as 8chan, resulting in skyrocketing far-right usership. As my organization has found, in a selected sample of 374 far-right channels and chat groups on Telegram, almost 80 percent were created between the March 15 attack and Oct. 30. The number of users in this community likewise increased: A selected sample of far-right channels created in May 2019 collectively increased their memberships by 117 percent from 65,523 to 142,486 by the end of October.
Neo-Nazi and white nationalist groups now have in Telegram a centralized operational venue to network, recruit and distribute attack manuals, just as the Islamic State had for years. Features such as media sharing, one-to-one chats and reposting from other channels and users is helping to weave the far-right’s various sub-movements together, effectively building a unified umbrella of groups and ideologies.
Thus far, this far-right user population has carried on largely uninterrupted on Telegram. While the Islamic State was forced to keep its channels and chat groups private, those of the far-right are anything but hidden. We have found that of 249 far-right channels, 92 percent were public. Of 125 far-right chat groups, 57 percent were public. To this day, manifestos and attack footage from events such as Christchurch and the October shooting at a synagogue in Halle, Germany, are disseminated freely across the platform.
The world doesn’t need to be convinced of the threat of the far-right. People see it all the time, from the all-too-frequent acts of violence from far-right gunmen to the emboldened neo-Nazi groups organizing across the West. And it’s only becoming worse as the community coalesces around one platform, Telegram, which enables the far-right to grow far faster than it did when dispersed across platforms.
Telegram has now proven it is capable of virtually purging an entire terrorist community within days. Just like any platform with such facilities, they must accept their responsibility to enact it to all terrorist threats.