The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The platform where the right-wing bubble is least likely to pop

The website of the Telegram messaging app is seen on a computer screen in Beijing in 2019. (Andy Wong/AP)
13 min

This article originally indicated that Emerald Robinson had an account on Telegram. That account is not associated with the former Newsmax employee.

Once conservative America decided that mainstream social media platforms were unfairly censoring them — a belief born of pressure that those platforms faced to better police abuse and misinformation — it was inevitable that there would be a scramble to address this new market. The past several years have seen the birth of a number of right-wing alternatives to sites such as Twitter: Gab, Parler, Gettr, Truth Social.

None has been particularly successful, hobbled by rampant racism, technical stumbles or simply scale. Social networks aren’t fun until they’re social, and they aren’t social until they have users.

This is one reason there’s been an embrace on the right of Elon Musk’s proposal to buy Twitter. In part, it’s because Musk echoes the complaints about speech that are central to right-wing criticism of the platform. In part, it’s because having Musk fix Twitter’s perceived shortcomings would mean that no one has to rebuild a community somewhere else in the first place.

As all of this jockeying has been going on, though, there are still places on the Internet, mostly tucked out of plain sight, where unfettered and unmoderated right-wing rhetoric has a home. In recent months, one of those places — Telegram — has become, perhaps, the most prominent platform for the right-wing fringe, a place where those blocked from Twitter can be heard and where everyone else can say things that Twitter would not allow.

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If you want to know what white nationalist leader Nick Fuentes — banned from Twitter — has to say about the war in Russia, you can follow him on Telegram. If you want to hear from prominent election-fraud conspiracy theorists such as Lin Wood and Douglas Frank, both have large followings on the platform. If you’re curious how the news looks from the perspective of fringe outlets and voices, Telegram gives people such as Stew Peters an opportunity to show you.

Experts who spoke with The Post suggested that Telegram plays an important, if not yet essential, role in the right-wing information ecosystem, offering a respite from scrutiny and moderation. It’s a place where the fringe’s bubble of disinformation and rhetoric can remain unpunctured — which is often precisely the appeal.

Telegram’s rise

In the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack at the Capitol, there was a sudden surge of interest in alternatives to Twitter and Facebook. After all, the day’s violence prompted both social networks to remove President Donald Trump’s accounts — an unprecedented crackdown on one of the most prominent voices in the world. His allies were spooked. Other right-wing platforms were unavailable; Parler, for example, was removed from phone app stores as evidence accrued suggesting that it was used to coordinate the day’s events. One expert who spoke with The Post predicted that for many people fleeing the big sites, “Telegram will be a main platform they turn to.”

The Capitol riot did, in fact, trigger a new surge of interest in Telegram. Data on right-wing activity compiled by a team including Martin Rooke, a fellow with the Shorenstein Center’s Technology and Social Change Project, shows an escalation after the riot. But there was already a lot of activity by the right on Telegram, Rooke told me. His data showed a similar increase after the protests associated with Black Lives Matter the previous summer.

That’s shown elsewhere, too. The Justice Department’s indictments related to the Capitol riot show a number of instances in which the platform was used to coordinate action or recruit attendance in Washington on that day. One suspect, Jeffrey Scott Brown, was allegedly part of a Telegram channel described as serving “as the Comms for able bodied individuals that are going to DC on Jan 6. Many of us have not met before and we are all ready and willing to fight.” A suspect named Benjamin Martin was similarly added to a channel for “a group of 200+ California patriots that are going to DC Jan 6.” Several members of the extremist group the Proud Boys were similarly connected over Telegram.

In the days after the riot, the Proud Boys promoted Telegram channels, and the group’s chairman, Enrique Tarrio, publicly championed its lack of restrictions.

“Welcome, newcomers, to the darkest part of the web,” Tarrio wrote on Telegram, according to the New York Times. “You can be banned for spamming and porn. Everything else is fair game.”

This was not the first time that Telegram had been home to notorious organizations. For years, experts on international terrorism had pressured Telegram to do a better job of uprooting suspected activity by terrorists. In 2019, it amplified its efforts to do so — prompting questions about the extent to which it might face similar issues with domestic extremists. (A request for an interview with Telegram did not receive a response.)

By June of last year, fringe elements of the right were already noticeably settled on Telegram. But the migration over was rocky. A Washington Post analysis published in January found that many of those who had jumped to Telegram after Jan. 6 soon found their follower counts stagnating.

There are probably two primary reasons for that. The first is that Telegram doesn’t have a recommendation algorithm like Facebook’s and Twitter’s. If you follow someone like Nick Fuentes, you aren’t then served up similar content to add to your feed. The second is that the still-limited scope of users means that for those not at the extremes of the fringe, other platforms still made more sense to cultivate.

Consider Rooke’s assessment, focused on an understanding of the political right as a spectrum ranging from traditional conservatives to the conspiratorial fringe.

“The closer to center-right you get is where a lot of the influencers and their followers are more open” and where public platforms such as Gettr and Rumble reside, Rooke told me when we spoke over Zoom. After all, that’s where more people are, and their content isn’t likely to trigger removal. But “for the more radical and extreme content producers and their followers,” he said, “it’s pretty much Telegram.”

Understanding the appeal

If you’ve never used it, it’s important to understand that Telegram isn’t simply a Twitter clone in the way that Gettr or Truth Social are. It’s more like the text-message app on your phone, really, connecting you to specific people or groups with rich content and an ability to reply with emoji or comments. And, critically, with at least some level of encryption.

Samantha Bradshaw, a postdoctoral fellow with Stanford University’s program on democracy and the Internet, explained in a phone call the combined effect of Telegram’s lack of a recommendation algorithm and its security features.

“There are public groups that people can find and search to join them. Then there are also private groups where membership is highly controlled,” Bradshaw said. “Sometimes you can set your messages to be encrypted in Telegram, so there’s a different level of security in some of the communications. There are also disappearing messages or messages that get automatically deleted after they’ve been shared.”

All of this is appealing to those hoping to avoid scrutiny — including the lack of an algorithm that could otherwise generate new followers.

“These fringe, far-right spaces are very concerned about federal agents infiltrating their social-media space, posting false-flag threats and things like that and then that being used as a pretense to take down the social media space or initiate a wider FBI investigation into them,” Rooke said. If the feds can’t find you, the feds can’t entrap you.

Another part of Telegram’s appeal is its longevity. It was founded in 2013 by two brothers, Nikolai and Pavel Durov, the latter of whom still runs it. They had previously founded VKontakte, a Russian version of Facebook that gained attention in the United States when it was discovered that one of the Boston bombers had a profile on the site. After a dispute with the Russian government, they created Telegram, distributing its servers in multiple countries to avoid similar tensions in the future. It has been a stable platform since, predicated on the sort of open-speech advocacy that is attractive to those interested in disseminating false or dangerous information.

That also means that the platform’s management isn’t viewed with the same suspicion as is cast elsewhere.

“The more radical fringes of the right do not trust even the alternative right-wing media,” Rooke said. “They view them as shills, that they are grifters, that the only reason why they’re into politics is to make money for themselves.” Understandably. It’s very clear why Trump backed Trump Social; the creation of Gettr similarly seems like an effort to profit from the anti-tech impulses of the political right.

That alarms many who have moved to Telegram, Rooke said.

“There is definitely the feeling that if the extreme fringes start making a presence on those platforms like Gettr — at some point when Gettr gains enough popularity, it’s going to switch up its policies,” he said, “and they’re going to find themselves without a home again.”

That stability also means that public Telegram channels are often used as advertisements for other engagement, Bradshaw said — including to private channels where moderation is less likely to occur, if it does at all. It’s hard to say how effective this is, given the “opaqueness,” as Rooke put it, of Telegram usage. Again, though, that’s a feature for many users, not a bug. That has made Telegram “a space for more radical, more extreme discourses on the right,” he added.

Last month, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab published a fascinating analysis of how misinformation networks operate on Telegram. By tracking when posts were shared across channels, it created a sort of map of the right-wing world on the platform, ranging from the Trump-aligned right (including the former president and his son) to white nationalists to the anti-vaccination community. It wasn’t hard to trace connections traveling through the groups.

All of this raises a question that comes up frequently in discussions about how to stamp out extremist rhetoric and misinformation.

“What happens if we take all the racist stuff and then they find closed spaces or alternative spaces to create this kind of echo chamber where they further radicalize themselves?” Bradshaw asked. “There just isn’t a lot of good research out there on this effect yet.” She noted, however, that there has been hypothesizing that “fringe voices join these communities, and for a few who go on to join these private groups and engage more deeply in this kind of rhetoric, they may become further radicalized.”

A 2021 paper from an international group of researchers looked at what happened when Reddit booted the virulently pro-Trump group r/The_Donald in June 2020. Many of its users migrated to a separate site,, at which a number of comments about potential violence appeared in the days and weeks prior to Jan. 6. The researchers found the effect about which Bradshaw had hypothesized.

“Platforms have difficult decisions to make: they need to consider the effects of community-wide sanctions not only on their own backyard, but on other online and offline spaces as well,” the report said. “Our results suggest that there may be a trade-off associated with this decision: banning a community from a mainstream platform may come at the expense of a smaller but more extreme community elsewhere.”

That’s clearly to some extent the situation with the far-right and Telegram at the moment. The sense of independence and isolation may even be part of the appeal.

“The biggest thing about Telegram is the sense of authentic-information sharing,” Rooke said, given the lack of an algorithm. “It makes it a bit underground and a little bit punk. It is a sense that you need to know what channels to go to.” Fringe hipsterism.

There’s another impulse at play here, too. For many on the right, being “banned” on Twitter or other social media networks (which at times simply means being removed from search results) is a badge of honor. It’s a sign that you’ve triggered Big Tech, that you are a true voice for the right. If you set up shop at Telegram, it’s a way of identifying yourself as someone too dangerous for the mainstream — even if you aren’t.

Among the politicians most active on Telegram is Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers (R). Rogers, who was recently censured by that body after she spoke at a conference hosted by Fuentes, has more than 144,000 followers on Telegram. She posts there constantly, her messages generally receiving hundreds of emoji feedback indicators. And the content is certainly questionable, laced heavily with false claims about the 2020 election.

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But Rogers is also very active on Twitter, where her audience is twice as large. There, too, she says questionable things about the election and politics — always while insisting that she runs the imminent risk of censure.

As of this writing, her pinned tweet, the one users see first when they visit her Twitter profile, is a plug for her Telegram page.

“Stick it to Big Tech,” a large image reads. “Follow Wendy’s Telegram channel.” In the text of the tweet, she asks her users to “spread the word in case Zucky or Jack kick me off Facebook and Twitter!”

At Telegram, she has bragged elsewhere, she can “say stuff … that I can’t say here.” Without moderation or fear of removal. Without being beholden to Big Tech, just medium-size tech. Without being someone who’s so square that they worry about being kicked off Twitter.

And that’s the appeal.