With US president Donald Trump booted from Twitter and conservative-friendly social network Parler taken off the internet by Amazon Web Services, the internet’s far-right has become digitally homeless. Or not.
Telegram, the privacy-first messaging app founded and led by Russian exile Pavel Durov, seems poised to give those people a new home. According to data analytics company Sensor Tower, by Sunday the app had become the second-most downloaded in the US. On January 12, Telegram claimed that it had attracted 25 million new users in just 72 hours. Great news for growth – the catch is that some of it can be chalked up to a far-right inundation.
According to Tgstat, a website gathering Telegram analytics, Trump-focused channels – group chats with unlimited numbers of subscribers where admins share thematic content – experienced unprecedented growth. Five of the top ten channels by number of new users added over the past week were publishing content promoting Trump and bore his name in their handle – with the exception of one channel focused on Donald Trump, Jr. The fastest-growing Trump Telegram channel now has 540,000 subscribers – 370,000 of whom joined since January 6. Tgstat estimates that the channel now has a total reach of 30 million – defined as the number of users who see at least one of the channel’s posts. Some channels that have been flooded with new members are Trump impersonators, possibly hoping to lure in people checking whether the US president has an official Telegram channel – he does not. Amongst a sea of Trump-supporting channels, the only English-language channel that gained more followers in the same period was the app’s own tutorial channel – possibly a testament to the influx of new users.
“People who were on Parler and elsewhere are now flocking to these alternative channels. And this is probably going to continue,” says Aleksandra Urman, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Communication and Media Studies, University of Bern and at Zurich University’s Social Computing Group. Urman has been monitoring the growth of political channels and groups (those with up to 200,000 participants) on Telegram for more than two years. She believes that the fall of Parler was one of the main triggers of the ongoing Trump explosion on Telegram.
Alongside the hike in the membership of Trump-focused channels, Urman found that the number of daily views per message on a channel affiliated with far-right group the Proud Boys grew threefold from the start of January to the immediate aftermath of Parler’s takedown. Similarly, Urman says, the number of messages posted daily on one of the biggest English-speaking QAnon group chats went from just over 1,000 at the start of January to over 6,000 by January 12. The trend dovetails with Urman’s previous research into deplatforming and digital migration: a similar social-media crackdown on far-right and conspiracy figures in 2019, she found, led to a burgeoning in Telegram’s membership.
Telegram’s surge is happening at a time when many users are ditching popular messaging service WhatsApp following an announcement that it will start sharing data with its parent company Facebook – and it is not inconceivable that some of those people opted to use Telegram instead. But invitation links to Telegram far-right channels and groups chats were being shared frantically over the past week.
Data from CrowdTangle, an insights tool owned and operated by Facebook, shows that Facebook posts on pages and public groups containing links to the top five pro-Trump Telegram channels garneered over 9,000 interactions (reactions, shares, and comments) in the past seven days – rising from 48 interactions on January 8 to almost 5,000 a day later.
Links to far-right groups and Trumpist channels were also shared on reddit, 4Chan, and TheDonald.win – a website born out of a banned subreddit – in the days preceding and following Trump’s Twitter ban and potentially indefinite suspension from Facebook, and the shutdown of Parler. Cached search data shows that Parler profiles shared at least 200 links to Telegram groups, sometimes accompanied by ominous messages about the platform’s impending demise.
Right now most of the public channels and free-to-join groups Urman has been monitoring seem to be mostly devoted to sharing Trump’s pronouncements and mulling over the facts of the past few days – rather than plotting future riots. “Members are mostly discussing the events but not organising. The trend in terms of channels is that they have a big reach – but they’re not posting anything horrible or illegal yet,” she says. “Some of them are posting Nazi symbols and ‘white power’ stuff, some are doing it pretty aggressively as they are anonymous, but they are not posting exact organisational details.They say stuff like, ‘do you want total war?’ and ‘we should protect [the] white race’, but they are not posting stuff like, ‘show up at 5pm at this location, be armed.’”
That might sound reassuring, but it is not necessarily. While many former Parler members posted incriminating pictures of themselves inside the Capitol on the platform, posts which have since been revealed to contain potentially incriminating geolocation data, many of the more dangerous conversations will likely take place on private chats, as opposed to on public fora. The same is true for Telegram.
Telegram’s newly-emboldened far-right community might have to go through teething pains before gelling into something coherent. Megan Squire, a professor of computer science at Elon University in North Carolina, says that one of the most active group chats associated with the Proud Boys grew from 4,800 members as of January 10 to almost 16,000 at the time of writing – and the mass intake resulted in immediate bedlam.
“Ten thousand new people joining the chat at once made it very confusing. Especially for the new people who did not know how to use the app, didn’t know how to set their security settings, and so on,” she says. But the chaos didn’t last long. Some new users have already started organising into smaller splinter groups. “They start with a mess and then they organise in smaller groups, in private chats,” she adds. It is there that things could possibly get ugly. And Telegram seems to be aware of it. “Our terms of service prohibit public calls for violence. We are proactively monitoring the situation and taking action. In the last 24 hours, we have blocked dozens of public channels that included calls to violence,” says a Telegram executive, who asked not to be named due to company policy that media requests only be answered by the press office. Telegram’s press office did not reply to a request for comment by the time of publication.
Despite the competition of several platforms catering to the “free speech” crowd – notably Gab, which yesterday claimed it had welcomed 700,000 new members – Telegram was always likely to win out in the end. Its design and features, alongside the company’s insistence of anti-censorship, privacy, and anonymity make it a perfect tool for groups who want to organise away from prying eyes. “You can do coordination in group chats and also mobilise your supporters through channels,” says Urman. “You can broadcast through channels, and then people can deliberate in groups.”
That is why – besides being popular with the far-right, QAnon believers and Isis – Telegram has also been instrumental in the mobilisation of protest movements in places like Hong Kong and, more recently, Belarus. In the latter case, Telegram managed to stay online – and act as a conduit for the communications of Belarusian pro-democracy protesters – amid a nationwide internet shutdown orchestrated by the country’s authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko. “In a western context, Telegram is used by the far-right. But there’s a place for an app like Telegram in society,” says Stefan Katz, a researcher at Bern University of Applied Sciences who co-authored Urman’s 2020 study.
The latest developments might be a mixed blessing for Telegram – which stands to gain tens of millions of members, but also risks becoming evermore associated with the political fringe. And over time that fringe might grow more extreme.
A recent study conducted by researchers in Germany, Switzerland, the UK and the US and published on the pre-print academic platform arXiv, found that banning prominent extremist communities – such as the r/The_Donald and r/incels subreddits – often leads some of the remaining members to regroup elsewhere, and grow “more toxic and radical”.
“People do move to Telegram – and other platforms – following the deplatforming of these celebrities [such as Trump],” Urman says. “What then happens is that the following of these celebrities goes down – Trump will likely never get 81 million followers again – but their followers also become more radicalised.”
Gian Volpicelli is WIRED’s politics editor. He tweets from @Gmvolpi
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