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.
What makes Telegram attractive for the far right
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.
Quantifying far-right channels
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:
- The far-right network on Telegram is “highly decentralised,” consisting of multiple separate communities – but largely by their own choice. In this sense, Telegram is similar to other social platforms. As the authors note, “far-right actors tend to recreate similar structures on different platforms regardless of the platform affordances.”
- The communities are typically divided by national and ideological lines. Within Europe, British, Russian, Italian, and German-language far-right communities are the largest on Telegram. The largest and most influential far-right community on Telegram are associated with the 4chan image-board.
- A significant influence is exerted by Donald Trump-related communities. Trump-associated channels are not official (the authors state they “do not know whether any of them are officially associated with Trump or the White House,” but it is safe to assume Trump’s communications team did not have official ties with the Telegram channels or groups). Still, Urman and Katz believe this “lends additional evidence to the argument that Trump and his presidency have aided normalizing the far-right rhetoric.”
- We know it from anecdotal evidence, but Urman and Katz provide scientific proofs – major Facebook and Twitter bans have played a crucial role in the migration of far-right groups to Telegram. According to the authors’ findings, a series of high-profile bans in the spring of 2019 (when major networks banned some key far-right figures such as Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos, as well as some far-right groups) caused a huge increase in the scope of far-right communities on Telegram. Interestingly, the structure observed in 2020 was formed in April 2019 and had not evolved over time
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].