Extremists on Telegram exploit Parler’s de-platforming to ramp up recruiting

Rebranded Proud Boys Telegram group saw

Extremists on Telegram exploit Parler’s de-platforming to ramp up recruiting

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Rebranded Proud Boys Telegram group saw massive subscriber growth after it was converted into a refuge for Parler users

(source: @maxbrizzuto/DFRLab)

Following the announcement that Amazon Web Services (AWS) would be removing Parler from its servers, a newly rebranded group surfaced on the messaging platform Telegram. The “Parler Lifeboat” successfully positioned itself as a refuge for the soon-to-be de-platformed crowds from Parler and experienced explosive growth over the next several days.

The DFRLab’s investigation into the group showed that it was formerly a public group for the violent extremist organization the Proud Boys that was renamed to reflect the impending migration of users sympathetic to far-right views following Parler’s de-platforming.

Right-wing extremists have used Telegram’s platform design and affordances, such as the channel- and message-forwarding features, to direct users to increasingly violent content. In December 2020, the DFRLab reported on a UK-based white nationalist community that included white supremacist and antisemitic narratives alongside disinformation about the U.S. elections.

Parler Lifeboat

The earliest records of the community that is now the Parler Lifeboat date back to July 18, 2019, when it was named “Right Wing Chat Squad.” Despite being publicized as a “public chat” the group was technically shielded from the public eye by way of a proxy group which served to vet newcomers before granting access to the real group.

Invitation to the proxy group named only with a period. Instructions to join the official “Right Wing Chat Squad” group include a redacted phone number for users to reach out to in order to join the group. This message was pinned in an official Proud Boys channel. (Source: Telegram)

The earliest record in the channel data, dated June 21, 2019, shows the community migrating from a private group titled “Right Wind Chat Squad V3.0” to a public group of the same name. The most recent name change occurred on January 10, 2021, roughly 10 hours prior to Parler’s removal.

DFRLab analysis of the Parler Lifeboat group shows how the community’s name changed over time since the channel’s inception. Blurred are three group names that targeted a female member of the community. (Source: @maxbrizzuto/DFRLab via Telegram )

In preparation for de-platforming, the Parler Lifeboat was promoted by the official Proud Boys account among their final posts on Parler. At the time of the Parler platform takedown by AWS, the post had been viewed upwards of 1 million times.

Archive of Parler post promoting the group as seen on the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine. (Source: Parler/archive via WayBack Machine)

The Parler Lifeboat group was also promoted on Telegram internally. Due to Telegram’s simple community search feature, the inclusion of “Parler” in the name of the group worked to elevate the community to the top of Parler-related search results, which spiked after the platform was taken down.

Posts to the “Parler Lifeboat” group as reflected in the group history data. (Source: @maxbrizzuto/DFRLab via Telegram)

Analysis of the message history shows abnormal activity in the month leading up to the January 10 spike. Since Parler Lifeboat was a Telegram group, rather than a channel, the administrators had the ability to remove content from the record. Between 23:16 UTC on December 1, 2020 and 13:59 UTC on January 10, 2021, the group’s records have been redacted. Records show that members continued to join the group — at a rate of three or four users per day for the month of December, which supports the notion that messages were removed retroactively by administrators, though notices of new members joining were not.

With the knowledge that Proud Boys were centrally involved in the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, the group administrators could have decided to delete the group’s message history in the lead-up to the felonious events that transpired in order to protect contributors from possible legal repercussions.

Chat history records show that invites witnessed a concurrent spike with messages on January 10, 2021, reaching a peak of nearly 14,000 invites from January 10–11, 2021.

Cropped view of the Parler Lifeboat message history (top) and invite history (bottom) between November 1, 2020, and February 3, 2021. Note that while invites can be posted in the chat as messages, the above “invite history” data is categorized separately, as an “action,” in Telegram chat history downloads. (Source: @maxbrizzuto/DFRLab via Telegram)

The massive volume of invitations to the group may be in part the result of Parler evacuation efforts. Members were invited to the group at intervals ranging from every few minutes to every couple of seconds for the greater part of January 10, the day Apple and Amazon announced they would join Google in removing Parler from their services.

Not all of the newcomers to the Parler Lifeboat were necessarily new to Telegram or unacquainted with the Proud Boys or other extremist communities on the platform, however. The Lifeboat was promoted and shared on 41 other channels and groups on Telegram, some of which were extremist communities that espoused white supremacist ideologies and Nazi propaganda. Positioning the Parler Lifeboat within an established network of extremists online would expose unsuspecting Parler refugees to harmful influencers from more extremist corners of the platform.

Telegram channels that promoted content from the Parler Lifeboat and mention the Parler Lifeboat channel. Note white supremacist communities and symbolism; names redacted, but group icons include swastikas, Nazi propaganda, and the number 88 (a popular coding for “heil Hitler” via the initials “HH” as “H” is the eighth letter of the alphabet). (source: TGStat)

At its peak, Parler Lifeboat had grown to a subscriber base of upwards of 16,000 users according to data from TGStat, an open-source Telegram analytics tool. Once the Proud Boys had successfully attained a moderator position to review thousands of prospective channel members, they took precautions to distance themselves from the Proud Boys name. Newcomers were welcomed to the community with open arms and a pinned message that expressly stated that Parler Lifeboat was “not affiliated with any group.”

Pinned message as seen in the Parler Lifeboat Telegram Group. (Source: Telegram)

As more and more users piled into the group, the Proud Boys continued to brigade their messaging, though the sheer volume of posts made Proud Boy-specific content less visible, mixed with more general pro-Trump content.

A sample of some of the images posted on the chat before and after January 10, 2021. Note the change in tenor that posts experienced over the time frame.. (Source: Telegram)

On Telegram, forwarded messages from other channels can be inspected to get an idea of what kind of content is valued in the community. Judging from the differences in reposted content before and after January 10, 2021, the influx of displaced Parler users affected the sort of content that was shared in the group.

Top 15 communities from which messages posted to the Parler Lifeboat channel were forwarded, from June 21, 2019 until the January 10, 2021 de-platforming; left, and after de-platforming until the time of publishing; right. (Source: @maxbrizzuto/DFRLab via Telegram)

The appearance of more hyper-partisan channels and media outlets mark a departure from the Proud Boys-related content and hardline right-wing political influencers promoted in the group prior to January 10, 2021.

Since the peak on January 10, the community has seen some members unsubscribe. This exodus mimics that of the aforementioned U.K.-based U.S.Voter Fraud channel, where user retention began to fall off after topical discussion settled down.

Parler Lifeboat subscriber counts provided by TGStat shows that it is leveling off. From open-source data, it is unclear how many subscribers the channel had prior to January 10, 2021, but at the time of publication the community has 13,257 subscribers. (source: tgstat.com)

For extremist communities, the utility in drawing a large crowd does not come from the peak in engagement and sudden visibility; rather, the lasting benefit for these groups in engaging in such a maneuver is to recruit those visitors that stick around long after the frenzy of posting is over. Though the “Parler Lifeboat” failed to retain some of its subscribers, those that remain are now exposed to more extremist content, as Proud Boy contributions begin to make up more of the conversation.

Max Rizzuto is a Research Assistant with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.

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