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How Telegram won the far-right social media war of 2021

It bested Gab and Parler.

 

Claire Goforth

Tech

Published Dec 16, 2021   Updated Dec 16, 2021, 11:08 am CST

Telegram has arrived. The encrypted messaging app enjoyed popularity worldwide for years, but in the United States, it’d been a lesser player in a field that includes social media giants Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter and their fringe competitors Parler, Gab, and Rumble. Not anymore. In far-right and conspiracy theorists’ circles in 2021, Telegram is king.

Extremists and conspiracists, many of whom are terminally online, were already switching to alternatives like Gab and Parler because they were getting suspended in larger platforms’ crackdowns on extremism, disinformation, and conspiracies. The trickle became an exodus after the Capitol riot on Jan. 6. In the days following the riot, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube suspended former President Donald Trump and a slew of others believed to have incited or participated in it. Many, with the notable exception of Trump, turned to Gab, Parler, and Telegram. Their audience rushed to join them.

Initially it seemed that Parler would become the far-right’s platform of choice for 2021. Then Amazon Web Services severed ties over its role in the Capitol riot, which was largely coordinated and livestreamed on the platform. With Parler forced offline, though not before researchers archived its data, Gab might’ve been the next logical choice. But it’s still hobbled by perceptions formed when the Pittsburgh synagogue mass shooter posted his manifesto on the platform, making it known as a haven for antisemites. Then Gab was hacked.

Others have attempted to enter the space. Trump’s planning to launch his own social media platform next year, though it’s already under federal investigation and was overrun by trolls. MeWe is essentially a non-player. Gettr launched in the summer of 2021 and was quickly awash with pro-ISIS propaganda. Since then it’s struggled to get off the ground. As of November, Gettr had a comparatively tiny presence of 3 million all-time downloads, per the Washington Post. Mike “My Election Fraud Pillow” Lindell also tried and failed at launching his own platform.

Telegram is essentially the last one standing. Unlike the others, it has the capacity to host an influx of millions without bugs and service disruptions. It also helps that Telegram doesn’t have a history of hacks or leaks, so users can rest assured that their data isn’t likely to see the light of day.

Thus, due to a mix of default and design, this year, Telegram became the far-right and conspiracy theorists’ platform of choice.

On Jan. 13, Telegram announced that it’d been downloaded 25 million times in the previous 72 hours, just after Parler shut down. Telegram was in the top two most downloaded free apps for both Android and Apple at the time. Those 25 million downloads put Telegram in the rarefied air of a half-billion active users—and represented a 25% increase in mere months. The previous April the company said it had 400 million active users.

To compare, Twitter had a little bit more than 200 million active users as of late 2021.

Extremists’ adoption of Telegram is both unlikely and arguably inevitable.

One might not necessarily expect to see hard-core white supremacists and nationalists on a platform headquartered in the Middle East (specifically Dubai) that’s wildly popular with Islamic extremists. So many members of the terrorist group ISIS use Telegram that the company maintains a channel dedicated to reporting how many ISIS channels and bots it bans every day. In November alone, it banned 25,000, per Isis Watch on Telegram. Chris Sampson, co-author of Hacking ISIS, told the Daily Dot that he has doubts about its figures, however.

Groups that might literally kill one another if they met in real life sharing the same platform is indeed strange. But it also makes a certain kind of sense. Telegram offers a combination of privacy, encryption, and a near absolutist view of permissible content. Basically anything goes that isn’t illegal, a scam, or a call for violence—though even these rules have some wiggle room. On Telegram, you’re not going to get in trouble for suggesting that anyone critical of ivermectin is committing genocide and should be publicly executed.

In fact, you might end up with more than 100,000 subscribers.

You also won’t get banned or arrested if you go even further and start plotting these assassinations, so long as you do it in a private group or channel, which is similar to a private Facebook group. You can also send private messages, which are similarly exempt from Telegram’s policies. This feature can be quite appealing to people who, for instance, are plotting to kidnap and murder a political enemy or violently overthrow the government.

Telegram is also practically allergic to cooperating with law enforcement. The company is intentionally set up so that it’s all but impossible for authorities to access its data. It uses a distributed infrastructure model wherein its servers are located in secretive locations around the world. Its decryption keys are also split into parts and kept in locations separate from the data. Telegram’s website boasts, “As a result, several court orders from different jurisdictions are required to force us to give up any data.”

Telegram’s lack of cooperation with law enforcement puts it on the bleeding edge of the privacy movement, something both far-left and far-right groups—for all their animosity—can agree on. Telegram is making an internet where data privacy is central, and regardless of the content on it, it’s likely new tech upstarts and big giants will follow its lead as the push for total data privacy gains steam.

So it’s easy to see why these policies appeal to extremists and conspiracy theorists who’ve been booted from other platforms for plotting an insurrection, spreading QAnon conspiracy theories, or calling for a race war, all of which have become more taboo on mainstream platforms in 2021.

And where the extremists and conspiracists go, the influencers follow.

Alongside fringe elements like Lin Wood and Laura Loomer, who’ve been banned by most platforms, on Telegram you’ll find people such as Jack Posobiec, Charlie Kirk, and Dan Bongino who haven’t been suspended elsewhere. Their footprint on Telegram typically closely mirrors that on other platforms.

Preemptively joining Telegram is a savvy move for far-right figures for multiple reasons. For one, it makes sense to go where your audience is. It’s also a useful safeguard in case they get banned by more mainstream platforms—which for some could happen at any time. Preemptively building a Telegram presence means that you don’t have to start from scratch if they get booted by the others or Parler gets shut down again.

Extremism researcher Sampson, who’s currently working on a book about the Oath Keepers, sees both benefits and drawbacks to the way Telegram operates and its adoption by the far-right and conspiracists. He said it’s useful for researchers and journalists to have them all corralled in one “trackable space” where the odds of suspension are almost nonexistent. As much as some celebrate when a platform bans a Proud Boy or QAnon influencer, which has occurred with increasing regularity in 2021 as compared to years prior, it makes it more difficult to track their activity. It also typically means that potentially valuable data about their previous posts and statements are lost.

Sampson believes that Telegram further presents less risk of radicalizing the general population. There it’s much less likely that unsuspecting moms, retirees, and lonely teen boys—all of whom have proven susceptible to radicalization online—will unwittingly stumble upon extremist content and, in conspiracy theorist-speak, fall down the rabbit hole. Telegram doesn’t have an algorithm feeding users content designed to keep them engaged and outraged. You only see what’s posted in the channels you subscribe to, which don’t exist outside the app.

And because everyone is siloed in their own groups and channels, content doesn’t go viral on Telegram in the traditional sense. Typically you’ll see all the Proud Boys groups sharing the same post, or the QAnon ones, but it’s uncommon for anything to transcend ideological groupings. There’s no “trending topics” or “pages like this” or endless feed. So, unlike on other platforms, you’re probably not going to start off looking up homeopathic remedies and wind up deep into conspiracy theories about chem trails.

In a way, the shift to Telegram and its communication style is a reversion of sorts that has mirrored larger trends as big tech animosity has swelled to unseen levels. Telegram is an enclosed feedback loop, not easy to embed, observe, or blast across the internet. Just as progressives have pushed for greater data privacy, far-right groups have migrated to channels they’re confident aren’t the same giant online panopticons we’ve all been living in the past decade. 

Or, to put it in more modern parlance, Sampson says, “They think that Telegram is a safe space.”

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*First Published: Dec 16, 2021, 7:00 am CST