Terrorgram: A community built on hate

Telegram’s far-right ecosystem provides a haven

Terrorgram: A community built on hate

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Telegram’s far-right ecosystem provides a haven for online hate communities and a gateway to extremist content

(Source: @DFRKaul/DFRLab via @oddbench)

A racially motivated attack by a lone gunman left nine dead in the town of Hanau, east of the city of Frankfurt, Germany, on February 19, 2020. Hours after the attack, the shooter’s manifesto and video messages were amplified by right-wing extremist groups on Telegram, amassing thousands of views from users on the encrypted messaging app.

In recent years, Telegram, a point-to-point communications app, has seen an influx of extremist channels using the platform’s “public channel” feature to foster online communities. These range from channels dedicated to sharing “politically incorrect” jokes and memes to more virulent channels explicitly aligned with far-right terror groups. Despite encompassing differing strands of the far-right movement, the channels regularly cross-post and share content related to the manifestos, do-it-yourself weapons designs, and livestream videos of mass shooters, amplifying the content to a large audience of transnational far-right sympathizers on the platform.

In particular, the content related to far-right shooters aims to create a cult of personality around mass shooters venerating them as “saints,” while also encouraging users of these channels to follow their example. Considered within the broader context of a sharp increase in the number of violent incidents carried out by far-right extremists across the West, the use of online messaging apps such as Telegram as a tool to radicalize and enable the next generation of far-right terrorists is a threat that warrants greater public attention.

A community built on hate

After multiple mass shootings in the United States in 2019, major social media platforms enacted a series of measures to address public concerns regarding the misuse of their platforms by far-right extremists. In March 2019, Facebook announced a ban on content related to white nationalism and separatism. In June 2019, YouTube followed suit and announced that it would ban all neo-Nazi material on its platform. In the face of increased scrutiny, right-wing extremists have migrated to alternative platforms, with Telegram, a Russian social media platform, emerging as a favored choice. The popular encrypted messaging app was made by Pavel Turov, a free speech and privacy advocate who also created Russian social media platform VKontakte, which is widely popular among Russian-speaking internet users.

Telegram experienced a surge in far-right users after the notorious online message board 8chan was de-platformed by its domain registrar and web host in August 2019 for its links to three mass shootings in the United States. The U.S.-based outlet Vice analyzed 150 far-right public channels on Telegram and found that more than two-thirds were created in the first eight months of 2019, concluding that not only had white nationalists increased their presence on the platform but that the nature of content shared on these channels had grown increasingly radical and violent over the course of their investigation.

Despite being relatively isolated from mainstream political discourse in comparison to other platforms such as Twitter and WhatsApp, Telegram allows users to participate in end-to-end encrypted messaging with its “group” feature, which is capable of hosting up to 5,000 participants. Additionally, the platform offers a “public channel” feature that allows administrators to host up to 200,000 participants in a single chat, as well as upload an unlimited amount of media and content. Cumulatively, these features have made the app an effective vehicle for malicious users seeking to spread propaganda, exchange tactics, and discuss strategy, as well as potentially orchestrate future attacks.

A many-headed hydra

The extremist public channels on Telegram encompass multiple dimensions of the far-right movement, with some of the most popular channels on the platform amplifying content related to neo-Nazism and white supremacy.

Channel info for some of the more prominent Neo-Nazi and White Supremacist channels. Note: for this and all subsequent images, the names have been purposefully obscured to avoid further dissemination of the content. (Source: Telegram)

Some channels also serve as online repositories for imagery, texts, and speeches by a diverse range of prominent far-right figures past and present, such as Adolf Hitler, George Lincoln Rockwell (founder of the American Nazi Party), and James Mason, author of the Neo-Nazi SEIGE newsletters.

Top-left: Post amplifying a video recording of a speech by Adolf Hitler. Top-right: Post amplifying a quote and video recording of a speech by George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi party. Bottom: Post providing an online cache of fascist and racist literature. (Source: Telegram)

Other channels focus on promoting anti-Semitism, uploading content aimed at vilifying immigrants and Jewish communities, as well as emphasizing the inherent superiority of Western/European culture and history. One of the fastest growing far-right groups on the platform, with over 8,000 members, aims to “expose” prominent personalities for being of Jewish descent, as well as create an online list of Jewish people critical of white nationalism.

Left: Channel info for two prominent anti-semitic channels, the former named after the chemical agent used as part of the genocide of Jewish prisoners housed in German concentration camps. The latter compiles a list “exposing” people of Jewish descent. Right: Example of post on popular anti-Semitic channel deigning to “reveal” the Jewish background of a trans activist. (Source: Telegram)

Another subset of channels promotes “Terrorwave” — a right-wing online community that posts hyper-stylized pictures of far-right attacks and violent incidents, using slick aesthetics to make the violence seem more appealing. Many of these groups intersperse links from traditional media outlets with jokes, memes, and propaganda produced by far-right terror groups.

Left: Channel Info for two prominent “Terrorwave” channels. Right: A post uploaded on one of the public channels amplifying a range of others channels that form part of the “Terror Telegram” community. The post received over 12,000 views at the time of analysis. (Source: Telegram)
Left: Example of content amplified on “Terrorwave” channels, uploading slickly edited propaganda posters attempting to acts of violence aesthetically alluring. Center: Poster praising Anders Breivik, a Norwegian far right terrorist who killed 77 people in an attack in Oslo and Utoya Island in 2011. Right: Poster uploaded on the “Terrorwave” channel amplifying content by Sonnenkreig division, a UK-based Neo-Nazi terrorist group. (Source: Telegram)

Despite focusing on differing aspects of the far-right movement, many of these groups support a philosophy known as “accelerationism,” which calls on its followers to commit violent incidents targeting politicians, journalists, celebrities, and protected communities in a bid to undermine social stability and hasten the downfall of modern civilization and build a new system based on white supremacy.

Left: Accelerationist poster uploaded on public channel for “The Base” a U.S.-based Neo-Nazi and white supremacist hate group founded in 2018 from Russia. Right: Poster uploaded on a “Terrorwave” public channel quoting James Mason, author of SEIGE, a violent neo-Nazi newsletter calling on supporters to attack journalists and politicians. (Source: Telegram)

Cross-posting content

There is significant interplay among channels in Telegram’s far-right ecosystem: channels catering to differing strands of the far-right movement often cross-post content from other channels belonging to the far-right community on the app, which has the effect of expanding the reach of the cross-posted content to a broader audience. In many cases, public channels that are meant for sharing jokes and memes cross-post content from more radical channels.

In one example, the administrator of the first channel, ostensibly devoted to sharing “jokes and memes,” uploads a series of disparate images before cross-posting another meme from a “terrorwave” channel that references a woman dreaming about Brenton Tarrant, ascribing sainthood to the far-right terrorist responsible for the Christchurch massacre. In comparison to the two preceding posts, the third cross-posted meme experiences a jump in viewership, from 324 views to 1,091 views.

An example of the escalatory nature of the terrorgram community, demonstrating how a channel ostensibly devoted to sharing “jokes and memes” cross-posts a meme from another “terrorwave” extremist channel and receives an increase in views. (Source: Telegram)

Similarly, a second example provides another demonstration of this behavior, with the content registering an increase in views from 1,293 to 3,921 with the channel administrator noting that despite being “taken from another channel, it hits the nail right in the head.”

Another example of cross-posting showing escalatory posting in another “jokes and memes” group devoted to European chauvinism, as in the previous case, the cross-posted content receives a jump in views. (Source: Telegram)

This cross-posting behavior lowers the threshold for entry for new users into established far-right extremist channels. Users subscribed to channels focused solely on amplifying news articles and memes may encounter increasingly explicit content that has been cross-posted from other, more radical channels. Over time, exposure to this content may drive users new to Telegram’s far-right ecosystem further toward its more extremist edges.

An example of cross-posted content between a terrorwave channel and another channel for memes. The post provides a guide to the veritable cornucopia of extremist channels catering to the far-right user base on Telegram. The post had accumulated over 19,000 views at the time of analysis. (Source: Telegram)

Propaganda of the deed

By turning to online technologies to broadcast their efforts, far-right extremists are employing a tactic known as “propaganda of the deed.” This tactic calls for individuals to commit political acts to establish a model for others and provoke further political unrest. Far-right attackers are increasingly employing tools of the digital era, such as recorded livestreams, memes, and political manifestos replete with cryptic references to far-right online subculture to gain infamy and spread their ideology among a large audience of like-minded users.

Posts amplifying livestream and video messages from mass shooters behind Christchurch, Halle, and Hanau attacks respectively. (Source: Telegram)

In turn, online communities devoted to far-right extremism use public channels on Telegram to further amplify the political writings and videos of mass shooters, which accumulate thousands of views and help the channels further grow their audience on the messaging app.

Another example of different extremist channels cross-posting the political manifestos of mass shooters behind Christchurch, Halle, and Hanau respectively. Helping these texts gain thousands of views from users on the platform. (Source: Telegram)

The channels also amplify content that venerate prominent far-right terrorists as having attained “sainthood” for their crimes, while also sharing content and memes referencing the assailants and gloating over the horrific nature of the killings. As part of this process, the channels regularly amplify images of the attackers weapons, attire, and writings in a bid to imbue them with a symbolic quality. This imagery aimed at deifying mass shooters is subsequently deployed as a steady stream of content via the community of far-right channels, usually alongside messages exhorting other users to follow suit.

Left: An example of cross-posting between different extremist channels amplifying imagery and ascribing “sainthood” the far-right terrorist responsible for the Christchurch massacre. Right: Another example of cross-posting between channels, in this case as a letter written by the same mass shooter to a supporter from prison, demonstrating how such forums allow far-right figures to continue fomenting hate and spread their political ideology from prison. (Source: Telegram)
Left: Post amplifying image of Stephan Balliet dressed in military attire during his armed rampage alongside a message underneath ascribing “sainthood” to him for his actions. Right: Example of cross-posting between channels amplifying manifesto and ascribing “sainthood” to Tobias Rathjen, the attacker responsible for the Hanau mass shooting while also referencing reports of his suffering from mental illness. (Source: Telegram)
Excerpts of posts taken from different extremist channels exhorting users to follow in the footsteps of far-right shooters and commit acts of violence targeting minority communities and “become a saint” themselves. (Source: Telegram)

A rising tide of hive terrorism

The Hanau shooting represented the latest in a string of high-profile domestic terror attacks across the West carried out by lone gunmen professing a radically militant form of anti-semitic and European/Western chauvinist worldview. According to the 2019 Global Terrorism Index, the past five years have seen a more than threefold increase in the number of incidents related to far-right extremism in Western Europe, North America, and Oceania, with the number of deaths related to far-right violence increasing from 11 in 2017 to 77 by the end of September 2019.

Graph showing the rise in far-right terrorism over the previous 50 years, with a nadir around 2010 and an apex around 2017. (Source: Global Terrorism Index 2019)
A post on the extremist channel amplifying an image of a jubilant Anders Breivik alongside a post noting the increasing frequency of terror attacks carried out by far-right terrorists. (Source: Telegram)

In an interview with The Economist, D. Koehler, a German scholar researching the phenomenon of these “lone wolf” attacks, also called “hive terrorism,” asserted that this development has further complicated the efforts of law enforcement agencies to counter far-right violence. As a result of the wide proliferation of extremist content online, the barrier to entry into the far-right ecosystem has lowered to a degree that is “practically impossible to predict when someone will go from wishing others dead to actually killing them.” Extremists have learned how to exploit features of particular digital platforms, such as Telegram, to transmit information, grievances, and virulent propaganda to a large and transnational user base.

Ayushman Kaul is a Research Assistant, South Asia, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.

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