Neo-Nazis, white nationalists and antigovernment extremists are publishing volumes of propaganda advocating terrorism and mass shootings on Telegram, a Hatewatch review of hundreds of channels on that app reveals.
Hatewatch examined publicly visible posts on the messaging app in which channel moderators urge their followers to “destabilize the US,” "kill the cops," "shoot lawmakers" and attack synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship.
Hatewatch notified tech companies that distribute Telegram about the content on that platform that appears to advocate terrorism. During that time, a minority of the channels flagged by Hatewatch were rendered inaccessible on devices created by Apple and Microsoft, but not Google. Hatewatch, as of this writing, was able to view the majority of channels we found advocating terror on all devices that support Telegram.
People in the same Telegram channels reviewed by Hatewatch frequently post memes glorifying terrorists such as Anders Breivik, the man who killed 77 people in a Norwegian terror attack in 2011, and Dylann Roof, a South Carolina man who murdered nine black churchgoers in 2015.
Telegram users also praise Robert Bowers. Bowers has been charged with federal hate crimes after 11 people were killed in a Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in 2018. The same Telegram users also typically praise the man who stands accused of killing 51 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March 2019. Authorities have asked the media not to use the man’s name, which is why Hatewatch chose not to publish it in this story.
Telegram has multiple channels devoted to so-called terrorwave, which refers to internet-based propaganda that glorifies political violence through the use of heavily stylized, cyberpunk aesthetics.
One meme posted to a group like this on June 17, the fourth anniversary of Roof’s murders, showed a photograph of the book SIEGE by neo-Nazi James Mason. Mason encouraged his readers to embrace terrorism in the name of destabilizing Western countries, which he believed would give rise to a new country for only white, non-Jews. Words are layered on top of the book that say things like “READ SIEGE” and “HAIL TERROR.”
“One last hail to Saint Roof,” the channel moderator wrote on the anniversary of Roof’s murders. “May today and everyday be a pleasant one for him. He’s earned it.”
Paul Nehlen, the former GOP candidate for Congress in Wisconsin turned advocate of political violence, posts imagery in his channel that glorifies white terrorists, alleged or otherwise, as “saints.”
The producers of the podcast “Bowlcast,” named after the style of haircut worn by Roof, operate a channel that posts similar imagery as well as personal information of activists and reporters, including addresses and phone numbers.
Jared Wyand, a Georgia-based white supremacist, appeared to advocate a race war on a Telegram channel he operates. Wyand amassed over 100,000 followers as a Pro-Trump Twitter persona before being suspended from that site in December 2016 for posting antisemitic commentary.
“Men, you have one simple task in the immediate. Arm yourselves. Train proficiency with your firearms. Build a stockpile of ammo,” Wyand wrote to his Telegram followers June 7. “If you’ve already done this, push the men you know to do the same. Everyone is asking what can be done. This is step one. You owe it to me and all White men to be capable and ready the day you’re asked to join ranks and take up arms.”
Telegram users in channels that promote terror also discuss weaponry, including the subject of building guns with 3D printers and homemade methods. A Telegram channel moderator in a group that mentions Mason’s book SIEGE in its title posted instructions on how to build a “slap gun,” which he described as being a makeshift replacement for a shotgun.
“It’s easy to 3D print a firearm,” the user wrote, before sharing an instruction manual for the device and a demonstration video shot in the Ukraine. “It’s easier to make a shotgun using two lengths of pipe, a nail, and a bit of welding.”
Telegram tracks the number of people who see a particular post with a small tracker, marked with an eye. Over 2,000 Telegram users viewed the gun-making instructions within 48 hours.
On June 20, a pseudonymous Telegram user going by the handle “Choke Me Daddy” posted a picture of a man wearing a skull mask, which is associated with contemporary neo-Nazi culture. The man pointed to what looked like a series of power lines across a metal fence. The language in the post offers an example of how some white supremacists appear to endorse violence and terrorism while also couching their words in irony and in-jokes based around negating that sentiment.
“Please note,” Choke Me Daddy wrote. “Do not do any of these things. Especially do not cover your face and destroy the many, and largely unprotected, power stations and cell towers. Electricity is a ghost, but one you can catch and kill. Do not do that. Do not become the sort of person who is really good at blowing up power plants without getting caught.”
Brandon Russell, the founder of Atomwaffen Division, a contemporary neo-Nazi group, allegedly sought to blow up power lines and places of worship before being convicted for building explosives in January 2018.
Moderators of neo-Nazi groups shared Choke Me Daddy’s post widely across their channels, and as a result, over 1,000 Telegram users viewed Choke Me Daddy’s post within 24 hours of it going live.
Following ISIS’s lead toward a say-anything platform
Critics have raised alarms about groups like ISIS employing Telegram to organize and spread propaganda for years, but the influx of far-right content advocating terrorism is far more recent, according to Hatewatch’s analysis.
An extensive report on ISIS’s Telegram usage published by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism in June suggests the Islamic terror group was using the messaging app for similar purposes as far back as 2015.
Following ISIS-led attacks in Paris in November 2015, Telegram also shut down hundreds of channels linked to the group on the app. ISIS remains active on Telegram, according to the findings of George Washington University researchers.
Andrew Anglin, the editor of the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer, first made a public pitch to his audience to embrace Telegram as an alternative to the gaming platform Discord in an Aug. 31, 2018, story called “Please Stop Using Discord. The SPLC is Monitoring You” – three years after ISIS embraced the app. The post appears to be among the first high-profile endorsements of Telegram within the white supremacist community, based upon Hatewatch’s analysis.
Anglin portrayed Discord, an app which grew popular with the white supremacist “alt-right” movement in the lead-up to the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, as being infiltrated by antifascist activists, the media collective Unicorn Riot, Southern Poverty Law Center and others. He put forth Telegram as a more trustworthy alternative to Discord:
[Telegram] does require a phone number, but you can either buy a burner phone or get a Google Phone number for free.
Telegram allows you to have large “channels” with lots of options for meme posting and the ability for custom emoticons. It is great software. You can also keep things private.
There is a phone app and a desktop app, both of which are very polished.
It also allows “secret chats” with end-to-end encryption.
They just refused to give their encryption keys to the Russian government, and got banned in the entire country (using some pretty extreme means) for it. So the secret encrypted chats are safe. The channels and non end-to-end chats are not that safe, but they’re hella safer than Discord.
Anglin refers in his endorsement of Telegram to the company’s conflict with the Russian government over its privacy policies. Russia has attempted with mixed success to block Telegram and has opposed its usage because Telegram offers to protect the privacy of its citizens. The government of Iran has also made efforts to block the app for similar reasons.
Pavel Durov, the founder of Telegram, was born in Russia but lives in Dubai. In response to pressure from the Russian government, he posed shirtless on Instagram in April 2018. He defied Russian President Vladimir Putin with a statement in that post that said: “News from the front: Russian authorities have blocked 18 million IP addresses to ban Telegram, but the app remains accessible for Russians. Thank you for all the support and love #digitalresistance #putinshirtlesschallenge.”
Durov, who also created the Russian Facebook clone VKontakte (VK), lists his political beliefs on that website as “Libertarian” and his religion as “Laissez-faire,” referring to the attitude of letting the free market function without government interference. VK, it should be noted, also hosts pockets of open far-right extremists on its platform, including Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer of the Daily Stormer, for example, and neo-Nazi Billy Roper.
Durov posted a visual ad for Telegram on VK in May 2018, which appeared to portray his users defeating a fascist regime through the help of his app. The ad depicts cartoon bears firing paper airplanes, which Telegram uses as its logo, as flags reminiscent of those used by Nazi Germany during WWII burn in blue flames.
The Proud Boys, which Southern Poverty Law Center lists as a hate group and is also active on Telegram, reposted a message from Durov’s channel on June 25.
“I see 3 million new users signed up for Telegram within the last 24 hours,” Durov wrote in the post shared by the Proud Boys. “Good. We have true privacy and unlimited space for everyone.”
The potential dangers of Telegram vs. other platforms
There are crucial differences between Telegram and other platforms that publish white supremacist propaganda, some of which potentially make the app more dangerous, based upon Hatewatch’s analysis.
For example, Telegram offers both private and public group chats. This means extremists can connect in channels that post publicly facing propaganda and then organize privately on the same app by using its encrypted chat feature, where plans to commit acts of terror can go undetected by law enforcement agencies. Although critics have suggested Telegram’s promises of secure communications are overblown, the app is demonstrably slick, functional and accessible on mobile devices.
Gab, a small social network that has also attracted a wide swath of white supremacist users in recent years, including the alleged Tree of Life synagogue killer Bowers, has been plagued with glitches since its inception. White supremacists have used its direct-message feature to organize, Hatewatch reported in January, but the conversations are not encrypted. Gab has also struggled to promote its social network effectively on mobile devices, due to tech companies dropping its app from their stores.
8chan’s forum “pol” is anonymous and doesn’t allow people who post propaganda to the forum to build the kind of personality-driven culture found on traditional social networks like Twitter or Facebook. Both the alleged Christchurch terrorist and John Earnest, the man who accused of killing one in a synagogue in Poway, California, in April, favored the forum.
Telegram does allow white supremacist personalities who either overtly advocate terrorism or appear to tacitly endorse it to build an audience for their different brands of propaganda, as evidenced by channels belonging to Wyand, the members of “Bowlcast” and Nehlen, for example.
Perhaps the most significant difference between Telegram and fringe platforms like Gab and 8chan, however, is the number of people who use the app on a given day. The company boasted in 2018 that it reaches 200,000,000 active users. Even if the overwhelming majority of those users may likely avoid making contact with channels that advocate terrorism, Telegram is demonstrably mainstream and global. It’s also distributed through stores operated by mainstream tech giants like Apple, Google and Microsoft.
Tech companies choose to respond to or ignore Hatewatch’s findings
Hatewatch reached out to Telegram for a comment on the research conducted on white supremacists appearing to use their product to advocate committing acts of terrorism. Hatewatch attempted to make contact via text, email and finally phone at various times over three weeks without receiving a response.
Google currently distributes Telegram through the Google Play store. Hatewatch reached out to Google by email three times over the same three-week span without receiving a response.
Apple distributes the Telegram app through its app store. Hatewatch engaged in conversations with Apple multiple times across the same three-week span regarding the content we found on the app. Apple requested to review channels in which Hatewatch found evidence of posts appearing to advocate terrorism. During the reporting period, some of the channels Hatewatch flagged, but not all, appeared to be inaccessible to white supremacists on some Apple-branded devices. Apple elected not to issue a statement regarding the content on Telegram flagged by Hatewatch.
Microsoft distributes Telegram through their Microsoft Store. They responded to a request for comment about the content flagged by Hatewatch with a statement:
Microsoft Store offers a platform for developers to provide products to customers worldwide. Content in those products and applications is controlled and maintained by the developers. Microsoft maintains our critically important responsibility to ensure our Store is not abused by people or groups facilitating or glamorizing extreme or gratuitous violence. If we receive and verify a report that an app in Windows Store violates our store content policies, we will ask the developer to remove the violating content. If the developer fails to take appropriate action, we reserve the right to suspend or terminate the developer’s app from the Store. We have informed Telegram of the public posts that violate our Microsoft Store Policies. We have an established history of enforcement against similar issues.
A pseudonymous white supremacist Telegram user complained that Microsoft had restricted access to content in some channels on June 24, writing, “F---, Microsoft phones too. It isn’t just Apple.”
The same person then recommended software that purports to work around restrictions created by tech companies, enabling Telegram users to view the blocked content.
“There is no political solution,” the white supremacist wrote. “They want you alone, depressed, and disconnected with your comrades. We will find a solution.”
Photo illustration by SPLC