Telegram is the go-to platform for protesters against oppressive regimes, who prize it for its focus on privacy, security, as well as for the capacity to circumvent state censorship. In Belarus, the revolution was effectively Telegrammed. Yet, these very features make the messenger attractive to various malicious actors, including far-right groups.
Far-right actors flocked to Telegram and other secure messengers following the US Capitol storming this January. The violent events prompted major social networks to “deplatform” Donald Trump and thousands of accounts linked to right-wing groups. Telegram rose less sharply in the US than Signal, another secure messaging app, but still saw a significant boost.
However, this is not Telegram’s first rodeo with far-right groups. Aleksandra Urman and Stefan Katz, researchers from Switzerland, examined far-right networks on this platform in an academic article published in August 2020. The Fix picked key findings from the article.
Urman and Katz begin by exploring the benefits of Telegram that make the platform attractive for fringe groups. The obvious benefit is privacy. Apart from traditional privacy features available on major platforms, Telegram offers end-to-end encryption through its secret chats feature, one-to-many channels that allow admins to stay anonymous, and anonymous forwarding. Moreover, the messenger allows users to fully delete any messages they sent – on both sides of the conversation.
Most importantly, the authors note that the combination of privacy features and publicity tools (channels, large groups) provided by Telegram allows online extremists to solve a constant dilemma of balancing “public outreach and operational security in choosing which digital tools to utilize.” In other words, fringe groups can spread information among a relatively large number of people but still enjoy a high degree of privacy and anonymity.
To analyse the far-right actors on Telegram, Urman and Katz gathered data from 53,296 channels, public groups, and private groups; 1,744 of them included full histories in the sample, and mentions were collected for all other channels and chats.
The authors applied network analysis to answer a set of research questions on the content of far-right outlets and interconnections between them.
Here’s a roundup of Urman’s and Katz’s key findings:
More from the Fix: Infographics: How Belarus media move to Telegram
[Editor’s note: Of course, it would be interesting to see how it has evolved after the 2021 deplatforming, but we will have to wait for further studies. Subscribe to our newsletter to make sure you don’t miss our coverage].