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Why right-wing extremists’ favorite new platform is so dangerous

Rioters push against police shields outside the Capitol.
After crackdowns by regular social media after the Capitol riots, right-wing extremists are using a new app. | Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

Telegram’s lax content moderation and encrypted chats make it a convenient tool for extremists.

There are lots of things for right-wing extremists to like about Telegram, the social media and messaging app that’s currently topping the app stores. Its content moderation is lax and scattershot. It’s a well-built app with lots of features for mass communication as well as encrypted chats and file sharing. And Telegram has more users than ever.

Following the Capitol insurrection, Telegram announced that it had surpassed 500 million active users globally. It had added 25 million new users in just 72 hours. Just 2 percent of the Dubai-based app’s user base is in the US, but it’s becoming more popular among Americans. Telegram’s US downloads in the first weeks of this year were more than 700 percent higher than they were for the same period in 2020, according to data from app measurement firm Sensor Tower.

Use of alternative messaging apps skyrocketed in recent weeks for a variety of reasons, including fallout from a WhatsApp privacy update and a crackdown by other platforms following the Capitol riot. In the US, Signal, known for its end-to-end encrypted messages, had the same number of unique installations in the first 18 days of 2021 as it did in all of 2020.

Telegram is currently the most downloaded app in the Google Play Store, having unseated Signal for the top spot in the United States. Telegram’s specific combination of features, however, make it especially popular among American right-wing extremists, who have joined the platform in droves after being kicked off of Twitter, Facebook, and Parler. The latter is another extremist favorite and was recently kicked off the internet, though it’s now back in a very limited form.

Telegram has three main components. Channels, both public and private, are mostly one-way broadcasts that an unlimited number of people can follow.

Telegram also has public and private groups where up to 200,000 people can communicate. Groups on Signal, for comparison, maxes out at 1,000; WhatsApp at 256. After its role amplifying violence in India and Myanmar, Facebook-owned WhatsApp limited groups’ ability to forward messages to other groups in order to stop the spread of misinformation. Bigger groups enable fake news — and calls to violence — to spread more quickly.

The third component of Telegram is called Secret Chats, where people can have one-on-one conversations that are end-to-end encrypted, meaning that hackers or police wouldn’t be able to see the content of those messages.

Megan Squire, an Elon University computer science professor and Southern Poverty Law Center fellow who researches online extremism, says that, together, these social media and messaging features are “convenient” for online extremists.

“They can do radicalization and recruiting on one platform,” Squire told Recode. These features also make it popular globally among activists. The app has been used by protest movements (Hong Kong) and extremists (the Islamic State) alike.

Last week, marking a rare departure from its much more hands-off approach regarding American extremists, Telegram blocked dozens of public channels for inciting violence, saying they violated the terms of service. This included a channel that, in the days before the inauguration, showed how to make and conceal homemade guns and bombs. This week, the app’s founder, Russian tech entrepreneur Pavel Durov, said after seeing an uptick in reports in the US, it took down “hundreds” of calls to violence on public channels.

Numerous public channels and groups containing hate speech, conspiracy theories, and racist memes remain. There are currently two channels with Proud Boys in the name, each with nearly 40,000 followers. They accrued much of that following in recent weeks.

On Sunday, nonprofit group Coalition for a Safer Web filed a long-shot lawsuit against Apple asking to boot Telegram from its App Store — as Apple did with Parler — citing its failure to remove violent and extremist content from the app.

A spokesperson for Telegram did not respond to requests for comment.

There’s reason to believe that Telegram does not treat content moderation as seriously as other platforms. Squire said she had reported a manifesto about killing Muslims to Telegram nearly two years ago, and it’s still up. Last week, a Proud Boy posted Squire’s address on the site. She reported it, but doxing isn’t one of the five categories of inappropriate content you can report, and again, no one has gotten back to her. Unlike on Facebook or Twitter, there’s no way to track a report on Telegram and find out what happened to it.

But the lax moderation on the social media messaging app is also one of several reasons for its popularity among extremists. Telegram, unlike other platforms, also allows file storage, which Squire said is appealing for extremists who want to share radicalizing videos and manifestos. Notably, Telegram’s very brief terms of service forbid the promotion of violence on public channels but do not mention anything about promoting violence on private channels or groups.

Telegram is also popular among extremists precisely for the reasons it’s popular with everyone else: The app is pretty good. It’s easy to use and isn’t frequently offline. Squire said it’s much better than other apps popular among right-wing extremists like Gab and Parler. “It’s not put together with bubble gum and duct tape,” she said.

As such, lots of people use it. And communications platforms rely on network effects, meaning they become more useful the more people who are on them.

And with more and more extremists turning to Telegram after crackdowns on other platforms, the app’s loose moderation has the potential to create new echo chambers to further radicalize those people. How much Telegram moderates its site will decide what sort of platform it becomes.

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