Extremists find new home in online app Telegram

Experts say that two months after 8chan, the fringe social network known as a breeding ground for white supremacists, went offline, other platforms are now attracting extremist voices.

8chan went offline after it was implicated in the El Paso, Texas, shooting in August, but since then extremism researchers say some of its anonymous users are flocking to other platforms, most prominently Telegram, a messaging app with 200 million monthly active users.

{mosads}“Where people really are going is Telegram,” said Joshua Fisher-Birch, a researcher with the Counter Extremism Project, which tracks fringe communities online.

Over the past month alone, Fisher-Birch has seen the user base of 65 extreme-right-wing channels on Telegram grow by an average of 256 users — or 43 percent.

Telegram did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Experts acknowledge it is hard to definitively say how many anonymous users are coming from 8chan, but they say the number of white-extremist “channels,” or groups on Telegram, has been growing for months.

According to a VICE News investigation published Monday, more than two-thirds of 150 far-right channels on Telegram have been created since the beginning of 2019, including many hosted by neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

That growth has reignited the complicated debate over how to crack down on fringe networks and attracted the notice of House lawmakers, who have been conducting a months-long probe into online extremism.

“We’ve made real progress in pushing Facebook and social media companies to crack down on fringe sites like 8chan and take seriously the threats of terrorism online,” Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.), who heads the House Homeland Security Committee’s counterterrorism panel, said in a statement to The Hill. Rose has been spearheading the efforts to look into how Congress can help tech platforms crack down on the scourge of violent and bigoted communities online.

“Because it feels like a game of whack-a-mole with extremist content pushed to other platforms like Telegram, it just means we have to redouble our efforts,” he said.

Telegram is favored among extremists because it consists of public channels where users can post relatively unfiltered content, as well as a private encrypted messaging service where people can communicate without fear of surveillance. For years, Telegram was known as the go-to app for al Qaeda and ISIS terrorists, attracting those pushed off of mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter. 

Now, as mainstream platforms are putting more resources into removing neo-Nazi and white supremacist content, far-right users are also turning to Telegram.

“Telegram was known as a place to access Islamist extremist content, and frankly it still is,” Oren Segal, the head of the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Center on Extremism, told The Hill. “But white supremacists have been catching up to their Islamist extremist counterparts on all platforms over the past several years.”

Segal said the ADL has seen an “increasing amount of white supremacist activity on Telegram” over the last six months, a sentiment echoed by experts at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

In March, the mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand — which was livestreamed on Facebook and went viral across all top social media platforms — raised questions around how social media platforms deal with incitements to violence. The suspect, who allegedly killed more than 50 worshippers and injured dozens more, posted a white supremacist manifesto on 8chan before the attack.

The suspected shooter in El Paso also allegedly posted an anti-immigrant screed on 8chan before opening fire at a Walmart near the U.S.-Mexico border, leading several web infrastructure companies to cut ties with 8chan. Though 8chan’s administrators in recent days have teased the possibility that the website will return, rebranded as “8kun,” it’s unlikely it will ever come back with the same strength.

{mossecondads}“8chan was incredibly anonymous and a free-for-all,” Keegan Hankes, a research director with the SPLC, told The Hill. “What it ends up meaning is that the communities atomize, they spread out.”

There are strong indications — including from users themselves — that they’re migrating to other, lesser-known “chan” boards, similar free-for-all image-based platforms with little content moderation. 

“Help im a casual were did the 8ch ppl go,” a user posted in late September, attracting a handful of mocking comments. And there are numerous threads where users have conferred over which fringe “chans” to flock to next.

In most instances, 8chan users were not left completely without a home — when a person has a social media presence on one website, they’re likely to maintain others simultaneously, experts said.

“There was no ‘migration’ per se, as I was already using other social media platforms in conjunction with 8chan,” one user with more than 100,000 Twitter followers told The Hill in a direct message.

Telegram is also raising concerns over what happens when far-right communities pull back into encrypted and secretive messaging platforms, a shift that’s happening as the white extremist groups are “getting more paranoid, smaller, [and] harder to infiltrate,” Hankes told The Hill.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) last week raised such concerns, pointing out that “foreign encrypted messaging services like Telegram will not share any data with the U.S. government.” Telegram has taken a notoriously hands-off approach to content moderation, only taking action against certain massive ISIS and al Qaeda channels after an aggressive public pressure campaign years ago.

So far, Telegram has been mainly unresponsive to many researchers’ inquiries. An official with the company in March 2017 penned a confrontational blog post titled “Don’t Shoot the Messenger” defending encryption.

The House Homeland Security Committee is currently working up legislation that would create a commission to craft recommendations for social media companies to limit terrorist and violent extremist content, a proposal that has already drawn scrutiny over First Amendment concerns.

Democrats pulled the bill at the last-minute before the committee was set to mark it up in September, with a committee spokesperson telling The Hill last week that it was “not ready.”

The committee is hoping to mark it up this month, the spokesperson said.

“The movement of people from one site to another is representative of the vexing nature of online extremism,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (Ala.), the top Republican on the committee who has been hammering away on the issue, told The Hill.

But Rogers said any “legislative response should, first and foremost, respect constitutionally protected speech and remain tightly focused on illegal terrorist activity.” That framework, though, could leave out a broad range of the content that is posted by white extremists that have not been classified as terrorist entities by the U.S. government.

Even though users are certainly moving onto other platforms, extremism researchers said they were still glad 8chan is offline.

“I think that it’s always important that people are mindful of the actual violence that’s involved in these sites,” Fisher-Birch said. “I am happy that the community that was encouraging more accelerationist attacks on 8chan is no longer there.”

Henry Fernandez, a researcher with the Center for American Progress, told The Hill he believes it’s worth it to continue pushing white extremists off of mainstream platforms.

“Our goal isn’t necessarily to create an ideal world where there isn’t this kind of hate and racism operating in these small, dark spaces,” Fernandez said. “It is to drive those people back into those small, dark spaces.”

Updated at 1:56 p.m.

Tags Max Rose Mike Rogers Ron Wyden
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