It’s not a secret that white nationalists have latched themselves onto virtually every online platform available in their relentless campaign to return to power: From message boards like 4chan and 8chan, to YouTube and its comments, to gaming chat services like Steam and Discord and video chats like Twitch.tv, and news aggregators like Reddit, radicalized white extremists have found ways to turn every available opening into both a recruitment and an organizing platform.
Their favorite platform these days, however, is the messaging app Telegram. Renowned for its dedication to absolute privacy for its users—including safety from government demands for data—Telegram has proven especially popular as a place where white-power extremists can gather to spread their propaganda, as well as to organize real-world activities.
Some of these activities, as on other platforms, have included plotting mass murder. An enlisted Army soldier based in Kansas named Jarrett Smith was recently arrested and charged with planning to bomb the offices of CNN, kill members of antifa, and join fascist troops in Ukraine—all of it in Telegram chat channels. He also allegedly suggested assassinating Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke.
A profile of the extremist channels at Telegram by Tess Owen of Vice reveals how Telegram has become the preferred platform of white nationalists. “Telegram makes a lot of sense for those groups,” she notes. “The app allow users to upload unlimited videos, images, audio clips and other files, and its founder has repeatedly affirmed his commitment to protecting user data from third parties—including governments.”
The move to Telegram has accelerated in recent months, particularly as some of the older online platforms have clamped down on their content or, in the case of 8chan, essentially were taken off the internet after a series of mass killings by white nationalists, ranging from Christchurch, New Zealand, to El Paso, Texas, were platformed there.
Telegram was created in 2013 by the Russian exiles Nikolai and Pavel Durov, brothers who had co-founded the popular Russian social media network VK (VKontakte) but left when it was taken over by the Russian internet service Mail.ru Group. From the outset, Telegram was dedicated to providing a secure space for its users, where they could have even community conversations without anyone prying, and with no chance of government spying.
Much of its initial impetus was to blunt government snooping in Russia, where the Durovs had multiple run-ins with the Putin regime, which has been attempting to limit Telegram as well. “As a foreign company and offshore entity we will not be obliged to comply with the rules of Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and countries like that,” says Durov.
However, among the users who immediately took advantage of its security were radical extremists from Islamic State. According to George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, English-speaking ISIS supporters “exploit Telegram's suite of features to communicate with like-minded supporters across the world, disseminate official and unofficial (ISIS) media, and provide instructional material for operations."
White nationalists have found Telegram useful for similar purposes. The site’s unlimited sharing features enable neo-Nazis such as Atomwaffen Division, for instance, to readily share their various propaganda texts, notably their fascism-blended-with-Satanism ur-text, James Mason’s Siege.
There are also limits. Even though the channels where the conversations occur are generally secure, many can still be monitored by any other Telegram user. Moreover, informants can still join such channels undercover. Several recent arrests by the FBI of Atomwaffen radicals were the results of having their chats monitored.
The people who run Telegram share a devotion to libertarian principles, particularly in their focus on privacy, that happens to also be common among most of the platforms that have had to reckon over the past couple of years with the influx of white nationalist and other bigoted movements that have mastered the art of manipulating the rules of the platform in their favor—including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and many other sites that initially operate under open free-speech rules that eventually have given way to moderated oversight.
Telegram’s reach as a tool of white nationalists intent on terrorizing their targets manifested itself over recent months when a still-anonymous group of them embarked on a campaign of harassment against Jewish critics of their movement by creating a list naming them on a Telegram channel. Each entry on the list features their criticism of white nationalism, and is accompanied by tweets by each person in which they describe themselves as Jewish.
“A private list like this, in and of itself is problematic and potentially dangerous,” the Anti-Defamation League’s Oren Segal told Mother Jones. “That this one is public demonstrates that they’re using this platform, that they want to amplify the goals of this channel. They’re just exploiting Telegram as a place that they know there will be no repercussions for posting this list.”
Telegram says that if a list like this were naming people for assassination or harassment, that would violate the platform’s rules and it could be taken down. But as it is, the list of Jews—the fastest-growing alt-right channel on Telegram since September—does not violate their rules and remains up.
New Zealand journalist Marc Daalder notes that, while Telegram claims its rules prevent terroristic targeting, “the far-right has gotten around this through a technicality. Instead of directly urging people to engage in terrorism, users write that it "would be a shame if someone [engaged in a specific terrorist activity in a specific location]".
At least one U.K. journalist, Darren Richman, has ruminated on the combination of dread and sorrow the discovery that he was on the “Jew list” evoked. “I was left shocked, not just that I was named on the list, but that the realization had so little impact when I first suspected as much,” he wrote. “We have reached a point in history where subtlety and nuance are all but extinct; subtext is now simply text.”