Telegram is crawling with antisemitism

In the past few months, Telegram has been skyrocketing in popularity, hitting 550 million monthly active users in July 2021, which makes it the fifth most-used messaging app in the world. Amid a wave of government-mandated internet shutdowns washing over the world, the app has also been praised for its resistance to censorship and its role in helping protesters from Belarus to Myanmar organise. But Telegram’s libertarian ethos has a darker side, says anti-racism advocacy group Hope Not Hate: the app is one of the vilest cesspits of antisemitism you can find on the internet. And the problem is growing worse by the day.

A new report from Hope Not Hate, focused on the spread of antisemitism online and due to be published in full tomorrow, has found that Telegram is foremost among major internet platforms for providing a “safe haven” for antisemites and extremists who have been booted from other social networks. This notably includes believers and peddlers of QAnon, the antisemitism-suffused conspiracy theory linked to the January 6, 2021, storming of the Capitol.

The report points out that several channels devoted to antisemitic conspiracism, or to straight-up violent antisemitic content, have grown dramatically – and unimpeded by Telegram’s moderation – over the course of 2021. Dismantling The Cabal, a channel trafficking in the New World Order conspiracy theory that launched in February 2021 has to date raked in over 90,000 followers; another channel, run by an anti-semitic QAnon advocate dubbed GhostEzra has garnered a following of 333,000. Hope Not Hate also found that at least 120 Telegram groups and channels have shared the racist, anti-semitic manifesto penned by the terrorist who attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March 2019, killing 51. Telegram has taken no action against that content. Telegram’s press office did not respond to a request for comment.

“If you compare this [inaction] to how Telegram has dealt with Islamic extremism and terrorism, it is a night-and-day difference,” says Patrik Hermansson, a researcher with Hope Not Hate. In 2019, the app removed more than 43,000 bots and channels linked to the Islamic State terror group as part of a Europol operation. Hermansson claims that some of the antisemitic content shared on Telegram amounts to terror advocacy and should be cracked down on accordingly.

Hope Not Hate found that conspiracy theories in general have been burgeoning online since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, and its attendant lockdowns and social distancing measures. Periods of uncertainty and isolation tend to give rise to all sorts of anti-establishment and anti-elite narratives, and the early phases of the pandemic were characterised by conspiracism on issues ranging from 5G to Bill Gates’s supposed role in the pandemic. But, as University of Warwick philosophy professor Quassim Cassam detailed in a recent study, most conspiracy theories eventually drift towards blaming a small group of people for whatever fictitious conspiracy they posit; almost invariably, that group is coded as Jewish. That online antisemitism is resurgent in a post-Covid world flooded with conspiracy theories is, therefore, grimly unsurprising.

The case of the QAnon conspiracy theory highlights this perfectly. This conspiracy theory, maintains that the world is ruled by an elite cabal of satanist-cum-paedophiliac politicians, financiers, and Hollywood actors, who spend their days chugging children’s blood in order to stay young – in a clear riff on the old antisemitic blood libel canard. While eminently US-centric in its origins – former president Donald Trump is portrayed as a white knight, and as of May 2021 one out of five Americans was a QAnon believer – over time the QAnon conspiracy theory has broadened its focus to encompass Covid-19 trutherism, anti-lockdown activist, and other far-right tropes, a move that has earned it followers in many European countries, with Germany topping the list.

Following a crackdown on QAnon groups and accounts on all major social platforms – partly as a result of the January 6 insurrection – many QAnonists repaired to Telegram, quickly creating a vast network of interconnected channels. Hope Not Hate points out that, since their move on Telegram – and piggybacking on the disillusion of the pro-Trump crowd in the wake of Joe Biden’s inauguration – some QAnon believers and influencers have embraced a more bald-faced kind of antisemitism, finding synergies with a pre-existing, florid far-right community on the app.

One of the most prominent examples of this lurch, Hope Not Hate found, is a channel run by a GhostEzra, a QAnon influencer who over time has transmogrified into a hub of antisemitism content, often blaming jews or “zionists” for various Covid-related made-up conspiracies including “world domination”. GhostEzra – whom an investigation by research outfit Logically has identified as Florida man Robert Smart – witnessed his following balloon to over 330,000 since he first posted on Telegram on January 8, 2021.