Understanding Telegram’s ecosystem of far-right channels in the US
DFRLab analysis of nearly 6,000 Telegram channels identified distinct “communities” ranging from MAGA supporters to QAnon
BANNER: (Source: Iria Puyosa/DFRLab via Gephi)
In the United States, Telegram has emerged as a popular messaging app among right-wing groups. Telegram’s growth appears to have been driven by political extremists fleeing from the moderation policies of major social media platforms. However, extremism is a far-reaching label that may obscure political and communicational dynamics occurring in Telegram channels.
This study aims to shed light on the dynamics of the different Telegram communities in the United States discussing extremist or fringe politics. Understanding the nuances may be helpful to build bridges to bring some of their audiences back to civic and democratic debates and stop further radicalization, especially with the 2022 US midterm elections on the horizon.
Telegram is the fourth most popular messaging app worldwide, with 550 million users in 2021. The cloud-based app is surpassed only by WhatsApp (2 billion users worldwide), Facebook Messenger (1.3 billion users), and WeChat (1.2 billion users, primarily in China and the Chinese diaspora). Initially developed in Russia, Telegram has become popular in post-Soviet states, especially Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Moldova, and Ukraine. US users are estimated to be around 2 percent of the total Telegram audience, or approximately 10 million users.
To conduct this analysis, the DFRLab built a dataset comprising 5,955 channels or chats by requesting data from Telegram’s API, using 79 channels devoted to US politics with a high number of subscribers as starting points to discover additional channels. After downloading the data in February 2022, we conducted a modularity analysis in Gephi to detect “communities” in the dataset, based off of links most frequently shared and forwarded posts, to understand how they are related by user interactions. Because this study defines communities in terms of these cross-channel interactions, we identified a number of communities with similar ideologies and like-minded topical interests that nonetheless formed distinct communities due to limited interactions with each other on the platform, often framing the same topic differently.
We categorized and named the resulting community subsets according to shared topics and language. Thus, clusters and categorization emerged solely from the patterns of behaviors found in the channels and not from any sense of ideological alignment, as many of the communities shared ideology. The analysis identified eleven clusters, ten of which fall on the far right of political the spectrum, and one comprised of leftist and anarchist viewpoints.
The largest Telegram channel related to US politics is @real_DonaldJTrump, with 1,024,780 subscribers. This channel was created on October 29, 2019. Its description links to a website maintained by Save America JFC, a Save America and Make America Great Again PAC joint fundraising committee. The @real_DonaldJTrump channel made 14,252 posts between its creation and February 17, 2022, the date of data download. These posts reached 504,226,566 aggregate views and were forwarded to other channels 969,996 times. Recent external links included conservative sites such as The Federalist and New York Post, as well as Kremlin-operated RT.
Former President Trump is a reference figure for the entire US right on Telegram. In this dataset, we identified 154 channels with “Trump” in their user handle. Still, only a couple of them can be linked with certainty to the Trump Organization or the Trump family.
Besides @real_DonaldJTrump, the most prominent channel in the TrumpistTelegram community is @TrumpJr (855,952 subscribers), Donald Trump Jr´s official channel, created in June 2019. Recently, the @TrumpJr channel has been focused on news about the trucker convoys and promoting a new mobile phone carrier, Patriot Mobile, “America’s only Christian conservative wireless provider.”
Popular news channels in the Trumpistcommunity subset are Western Journal, AmericanSpectator, and Steve Bannon War Room. Among the most popular influencers in this community are white nationalist Nick Fuentes (44,861 subscribers), Vincent James (42,186 subscribers), and Laura Loomer (34,915 subscribers). During February, popular conversations within the Trumpistcommunity were the rollout of Truth Social and the trucker convoys. In general, conversations revolve around political organizing re-elect Donald Trump, and conservative viewpoints on issues such as immigration, abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, racial conflicts, and social media moderation policies, which people in this community often refer to as “censorship.”
The war in Ukraine is an emerging topic in this community. Since late January 2022, Telegram posts have labeled the Biden Administration and Democrats more broadly as “the party of war.” The @real_DonaldJTrump channel posted on the invasion, “If I were in Office, this deadly Ukraine situation would never have happened!” Some Trump supporters regard Putin as a lesser evil than President Joe Biden, while some voices, such as Fuentes, strongly back Russia.
Close to the Trumpist Telegram but forming a distinct community, what we defined as anti-liberal propagandists, we found a series of channels linked to public personalities who challenged the 2020 election results. Most well-known are Lin Wood (690,961 subscribers), Sydney Powell (428,010 subscribers), JamesOKeefeIII (410,187 subscribers), and Stew Peters (336,374 subscribers). This community is less focused on traditional conservative values and more prone to propaganda and political conspiracies.
During February, popular posts within this community included “the anti-war right,” “Justin Trudeau is a Communist,” and “Convoy USA may be a Deep State setup.” Regarding Russia’s war on Ukraine, views are similar to those found in the Trumpist community, such as “Putin would not have dared to invade Ukraine under a Trump administration.” Moreover, most participants consider the war a result of weak leadership in the United States. The most popular news channels in this community are Project Veritas (662,597 subscribers), WeTheMedia (249,137 subscribers), RTnews (245,954 subscribers, which has since had all of its posts removed), TheBlazeTV (177,805 subscribers), and Epoch Times (276,323 subscribers), which is part of the Epoch Media Group, connected to the Falun Gong religious cult.
A separate community within Telegram, labeled in this research as Conservatives, is comprised of channels that self-identify as “conservative” in their profiles and is also adjacent to the Trumpistcommunity. This community revolves around ConservativesOnTelegram (104,739 subscribers), a channel that offers content strategy, channel management, and verification services for other right-wing channels. An affiliated Conservatives on Telegram website, which itself was created on January 14, 2021, features a list of recommended channels to follow classified into different categories, such as Politicians, Influencers, Media, Communities, and Comedy. Posts promoting the channels listed in the Conservatives on Telegram website are often published in several Telegram channels and frequently include coupons for the store MyPillow.
Channels in the Conservatives community include influencer Dan Bongino, former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, political commentator Ben Ferguson, and Students for Trump, a political organization chaired by right-wing activist Charlie Kirk. During February 2022, popular topics in this community included school board elections and attacks against Hillary Clinton. The narrative that the war in Ukraine would not have happened under the Trump Administration is also common in this community.
In our dataset, we also found a small community self-identified as “MAGA followers.” Most channels in this cluster are named after political personalities tied to the Trump Administration, such as General Michael_Flynn or Dan Scavino. However, these channels do not appear to have a direct connection with those people but rather usurping their names to attract followers. The largest channel in this cluster is MAGA Revolution (137,604 subscribers), whose bio links to Conservative Brief, a news site created in June 2018. MAGA Revolution works as a feed for reposting links to Conservative Brief content as a means of driving traffic toward the website. Created on January 13, 2021, it had garnered 3,956 posts, 92,344,310 views, 122,105 forwards, and 357,182 comments when data was collected in February 2022.
Elsewhere, we identified a subset of channels belonging to what we classified as Fringe Outlets. Most of the channels in this subset simply posted links to external websites pushing biased takes on current events.
Because Telegram allows channel owners to “broadcast” messages to an unlimited number of subscribers and live-stream with up to 200,000 participants simultaneously, it has attracted independent journalists, content creators, and small digital media outlets. News channels with a right-wing bias thrive in this ecosystem. In general, these types of Telegram news channels often include donation links.
Many of the small channels in the Fringe Outlets subset only exist on Telegram and operate by reposting content from unrelated news sites without generating any original content. However, a few are tied to far-right news outlets.
That is the case of Epoch TV (7,837 subscribers), which — like the Epoch Times channel mentioned above — is also a part of the Epoch Media Group. There are other cases in which Telegram channels take content from well-known media or blogs without a direct relationship with those outlets.
That seems to be the case of the Zero Hedge Telegram channel (28,053 subscribers), which publishes links to Zero Hedge blog posts. Zero Hedge featured prominently in the DFRLab’s 2021 Weaponizedreportas an amplifier of the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was a biological weapon developed in a laboratory in Wuhan, China. This Telegram channel, however, is managed by a user account named “BClark” who does not seem to have a direct relationship with the Zero Hedge blog. The channel asks its subscribers for cryptocurrency donations in Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Cardano.
One channel typifying the Fringe Outlets community subset is Richard Citizen Journalist (276,587 subscribers). This channel takes a conversational approach and often asks questions seemingly intended to garner user engagement. The channel’s operator, Richard David Poctner, also takes advantage of features such as live streaming. Richard Citizen Journalist has also promoted Bonds for the Win, a “sovereign citizen” group that encourages parents to file bogus claims against school districts’ insurance over COVID-19 policies and diversity initiatives.
White Supremacist Telegram
The primary White Lives Matter Official channel (11,432 subscribers) was created in April 2020, with the declared aim of “further[ing] the interests of White Children through real-life action.” The WLM network includes at least 140 Telegram channels directed at audiences in the United States, Norway, Finland, Greece, Australia, United Kingdom, Poland, Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Romania, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland, Ukraine, and Czechia. In the United States, WLM also has a least 30 Telegram channels targeting specific US states. Its channels actively recruit for “real life initiative with measurable impact” and use a Telegram bot for initial contact. Overall, WLM appears to reach a relatively small base of around 34,000 Telegram subscribers across its network of channels.
White Lives Matter Official has also posted a checklist of requirements for new recruits to the group, some of which are designed around audience growth and “online activism.”
WLM has come out against the war in Ukraine, as — in the operators’ view — a European war is another form of “white genocide.”
A second hub for white supremacist organizing in this community is Patriot Front (15,287 subscribers), created in July 2019. Patriot Front is a decentralized organization with groups across the United States engaging in offline actions. The Telegram channel documents Patriot Front’s training for personal combat and propaganda placement at a local level.
We also found a community of mostly small — often below 5,000 subscribers — Telegram channels devoted to “shitposting” and alt-right memes. These channels appear to target millennials by using humor to mock “woke culture” while conveying racist, homophobic, and misogynistic messages. Downplaying the war in Ukraine is a current trend in this community of channels.
From anti-mandates to conspiracies
An Anti-Mandates/COVID-19 Misinformationcommunity of Telegram channels intertwines issues related to COVID-19 and migration. The most influential channel found in this community is CodeMonkeyZ (388,555 subscribers), run by QAnon conspiracy theorist Ronald Watkins, who recently launched his campaign to be a US representative of Arizona’s 2nd District. Watkins uses the channel to campaign on the “invasion on the southern border” and to accuse the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of setting up “covid camps” in Arizona akin to Nazi concentration camps. Watkins also serves school boards with “surety bonds” claims. Watkins has also come out against military support for Ukraine, declaring that any funds allocated to Ukraine would be better spent protecting the US borders from an immigrant “invasion.”
The leading COVID-19 misinformation channel is America’s Frontline Doctors (roughly 207,000 subscribers), created on January 9, 2021. AFLD campaigns against “medical tyranny” and promotes non-compliance with COVID-19 mandates, including vaccination and mask requirements.
Another large channel spreading COVID-19 misinformation is COVID Vaccine Victims (140,907 subscribers), created on January 14, 2021. This channel and its associated website specialize in testimonials from people who allegedly suffered severe side effects from vaccines. The channel had 1,365 posts and 135,755,504 views, 832,225 forwards, and 79,438 comments at the time of our research.
A larger conspiracy community, which we designated as theCOVID-19 Fraudulent Treatments community, frames the pandemic as a depopulation plan while promoting unproven or fraudulent treatments against COVID-19. The channel Official Plandemic (59,914 subscribers) promotes hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the disease. Similarly, COVID1984chat (16,146 subscribers) pushes ivermectin as a potential treatment. The largest channel in this community is Phil Godlewski (760,760 subscribers), which also encourages taking unproven medicines. Additionally, Godlewski’s channel claims that the supposed “Deep State” is supporting Ukraine.
Finally, we found a community of adherents of the QAnon conspiracy. Among other claims, this community has drawn favorable comparisons between late President John F. Kennedy and Donald Trump. Relatedly, the subset includes 27 channels using the name or the image of the late John F. Kennedy Jr, son of the former president. The largest of these channels is @hsretoucher17 (179,744 subscribers), created in January 2021. Recently, this channel has posted content belittling Ukraine and supporting Russian President Vladimir Putin as a Trump ally.
The idea of an “awakening” against the so-called Deep State is central in this conspiracy community.These beliefs are also amplified to Spanish-speaking audiences by channels such as the Cuban-American channel Conpermiso (31,353 subscribers).
Another large channel in this community is Patriot Street Fighter (163,675 subscribers), run by pro-Trump activist Scott McKay. Recently, Patriot Street Fighter has been promoting the People’s Convoy of right-wing activists.
Telegram for the left
It is worth noting that anti-capitalist and Black Lives Matters channels exist on Telegram, but they are smaller on average, often with fewer than 10,000 subscribers. BLM Telegram channels do not post updates regularly, while anarchists channels tend to be more active. Even though anarchist channels do not usually discuss breaking news, some are following the war in Ukraine. For instance, Seditionist Materials frame it as a struggle from which to draw lessons to fight against local authorities.
Even if there is no coordination between the administrators of the channels that make up each community, they each form an informational micro-environment, particularly when discussing common topics with a similar framing. Each community features cross-channel conversations, reinforcing beliefs and identities. The communities we identified in this dataset may change as relations among channels evolve alongside current events. Nevertheless, amidst their differences, these communities populating Telegram share disregard for science, distrust in the mainstream media, and opposition to US political institutions.
Cite this case study:
Iria Puyosa and Esteban Ponce de Leon, “Understanding Telegram’s ecosystem of far-right channels in the US,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), March 23, 2022, https://medium.com/dfrlab/understanding-telegrams-ecosystem-of-far-right-channels-in-the-us-22e963c09234.