In March 2019, amid the aftermath of the Christchurch massacre, the far right made a collective migration from an array of messenger platforms and discussion boards to the messaging app Telegram. On their new home—the same one ISIS adopted as its digital headquarters in 2015—neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups steadily grew their audiences by the thousands. The Russian-founded, UK-based Telegram connected different far-right communities, helping to bring far more organization to the movement as a whole.
Despite repeated reporting about this trend, neo-Nazis on Telegram called for attacks on Jews, law enforcement, and minorities, and gave instructions how to do so, with no substantial counteraction. Far-right terrorist channels and groups—which they self-declare as “Terrorgram”—got to act like ISIS but saw none of the same consequences.
Rita Katz (@Rita_Katz) is the executive director and founder of the SITE Intelligence Group, the world’s leading nongovernmental counterterrorism organization specializing in tracking and analyzing the online activity of the global extremist community.
But amid emerging stories of neo-Nazi National Guard and Army personnel networking and plotting attacks on Telegram, the company is now taking thorough action against some of the most prominent and violence-promoting entities on its platform.
Among the first hit was Terrorwave Refined. The group maintains ties to organizations like Azov Battalion, a Ukrainian neo-Nazi paramilitary group, and Atomwaffen Division, a US-based neo-Nazi paramilitary group that is now largely defunct. Terrorwave was in many ways the central hub of the far right. It had all the invite links to other far-right Telegram channels and gave giant subscriber boosts to the channels it promoted. Its subscribers had doubled from 3,000 in December to nearly 6,000 by late June.
At that time, Telegram deleted not just Terrorwave’s main channel but also the backups it had created for sporadic removals. The platform also booted others, including Misanthropic Division, the militant wing of the Azov Battalion, and RapeKrieg, a vile Satanist neo-Nazi group.
It was the first shockwave sent through the far right, and the community started sounding the alarm that Telegram was “cracking down” on them. One message distributed across the community was accompanied by a screenshot compilation of channels that had already been removed, warning:
“… 10 channels deleted without warning, no restrictions, nothing; just straight out deleted … Additionally the channel owners for some of them have been perma-banned from making channels or messaging in groups.” Posts included lists and images of the deleted channels.
Rapekrieg administrators likewise published a message across Telegram, announcing that “RAPEKRIEG OFFICIAL was deleted by telegram without warning, accelerating our plans on rebranding for a new era of pro-White organization and communication.”
With the panic came signals of desperation. Breaking precedent, the administrator of Terrorwave Refined began begging others for help, going as far as offering Bitcoin payments to anyone who could find a way to bring the channel and its followers back intact:
“As you all know by now, Terrorwave Refined/Revived have been taken down by Telegram … I’ve come here today to offer BTC or any other preferred crypto to anyone who can return my full channel to me … Inquire in English, French, or Russian.”
Telegram had truly hit a nerve. The place that had been such a reliable safe haven for the far right was becoming unignorably hostile. That said, some of the community’s distress signals sounded a lot like their post-Christchurch prepping amid increasing removals on platforms like Discord:
“We will be experiencing a potential purge of Telegram content coming up. This warning goes to everyone out there who has channels, please forward these messages, create backups, and we’ll have to see what happens.”
Within these messages was an implicit admission of how reliant they were on Telegram. When neo-Nazis and white supremacists left their dispersed array of chan boards and other platforms for Telegram, it was like leaving behind a rickety old car for the USS Voyager. Telegram had it all: the safety of encryption, the ability to archive large collections of content, versatile channel and chat group features, and beyond. Everything they ever needed was now on one platform, where they could (and did) centralize and strengthen, just as al Qaeda and ISIS did.
Where does the far right go from here?
Given the timing of Telegram’s new purge campaign, the far right doesn’t have too many options. Its groups and commentators have already gotten the boot from major platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, as well as alternative ones like Discord and 4chan. Even free-speech-billed sites like Gab and Minds have ousted the most outwardly extremist examples among them.
As for Parler, the free-speech platform boosted by high-profile Trump campaign officials and allies in recent weeks, neo-Nazi extremists are skeptical. “Parler is kikeshit,” as one wrote, suggesting that those from the far right would be “tagged, tracked, ID’d, and financially crushed.”
However, others in the community saw it as a potential place for cautious outreach. As Nick Griffin, the former leader of the fascist British National Party, explained on his channel: “Note to all my ultra-hardline followers. Don’t be alarmed or confused by my populist postings on Parler. I’m not going soft.”
Still, Griffin’s is a minority opinion among far-right extremists, who almost unanimously deem Parler as a honeypot at worst, and urge caution to any of their own venturing onto it.
Thus, as Telegram begins a much more serious approach to deleting far-right accounts, the far right is already adapting, because even amid the new challenges, Telegram is still the best option. As one neo-Nazi channel wrote:
“THERE’S NOWHERE LEFT TO RUN, COMRADES. ACT SOON AND PREPARE FOR ALL OF US TO BE REMOVED AS TERRORWAVE HAS … WE WILL ATTEMPT TO RETURN BUT THINGS WON’T BE THE SAME.”
Admins for these groups and channels have already begun creating new backups. Some far-right extremists have even sought support from their relatively “moderate” counterparts, capitalizing on the crisis to amass more support. While posting links to backups of recently deleted far-right channels, one user implored in part:
“…our ennemies don’t make the difference between a siegeposter and a nationalist. Between a moderate and a radical … You have to fight with all those who, like you, have chosen life … Because today it is them. And tomorrow it’s you.”
These developments from the far right are like a repeat of how things played out for ISIS. After the 2015 Paris attacks brought heightened outrage about Telegram’s role in housing ISIS, the company gradually cracked down harder and harder on the group, forcing it to embrace private channels, expiring invite links, and other operations security measures. ISIS was in a constant chess game with Telegram, integrating messaging bots, channel-styled chat groups, and other manipulated features toward an increasingly complicated infrastructure. Though the group tried other platforms to set up base on, all roads always led back to Telegram.
Then, this past November, Telegram finally launched a highly effective assault on its ISIS userbase. The company didn’t just hit the channels and chat groups but also the administrators and users therein, sending ISIS operatives in disarray to rebuild and locate their contacts, whom they didn’t have lines without outside of Telegram.
Five years after embracing the platform, ISIS’ Telegram presence is now a shell of what it once was. Some ISIS operatives are still there, but the group no longer has a central home, and its operations are scattered across different platforms like Hoop, a Canada-based messenger platform. This diffuseness is more than a disruption for ISIS. It’s also a vulnerability: The more platforms ISIS and its community have to move between, the more cracks there are to infiltrate it.
Now the far right is gearing up for the same treatment. Administrators have already begun creating bots to join their channels and establish offline “cells.” A newly named channel for RapeKrieg wrote after its previous channel was removed:
“The past few weeks have shown us that the elimination of our online networking capabilities will inevitably be destroyed. Reminder to keep the cells and connections you make relatively small.”
As uphill of a battle as purging the far right will be, there are no cop-outs left for Telegram—or most of the tech sector, for that matter. Yes, terrorists are diligent, and no, there is no silver bullet method in keeping them offline. But Telegram’s ability to so drastically reduce its ISIS user base and rattle its online presence is proof that something can be done.
Or, to look at it another way, it disproves the notion that rampant neo-Nazi terrorist recruitment is an inevitable byproduct of the internet age. As the far right searches for new platforms, tech companies would be wise to take note.
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