Click here to read GNET's latest report Migration Moments: Extremist Adoption of Text-Based Instant Messaging Applications

Extremist Experimentation with Text-Based Instant Messaging Applications

Extremist Experimentation with Text-Based Instant Messaging Applications
9th November 2020 Bennett Clifford
Bennett Clifford
In Insights

The text-based instant messaging platform Telegram has become a chief coordinating forum for several extremist online milieus over the past few years. Among others, Salafi-jihadists (including supporters of al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS)), neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other far-right groups flocked to Telegram, especially in the wake of increased terms of service (ToS) enforcement by major social media platforms. However, since 2018, Telegram has steadily augmented its counter-extremism efforts through increasing partnerships with law enforcement, changing its ToS and privacy policy, and expanding the list of extremist groups it targets.

Part of the difficulties that technology companies face in countering extremism on their platforms is that every action is met with a reaction, and extremist groups have mastered the art of maneuvering in the online space. Telegram’s new counter-extremism policies generally correspond to attempts by extremists to diversify their options by experimenting with new text-based online instant messengers. So far in 2020, online forums affiliated with Islamic State have established a footing on at least a dozen instant messaging apps, encouraged their supporters to leave Telegram for other platforms, and increased their efforts to experiment with instant messaging services on the decentralised web. Meanwhile, this past summer’s targeted campaign by Telegram to remove prominent neo-Nazi and white supremacist accounts that promote violence also left extreme right-wing supporters on Telegram questioning whether the platform would continue functioning as a safe haven.

What do these changes portend for Telegram’s extremist demographic, and what platforms might they consider using as a result of these changes? In my latest report for the Global Network on Extremism and Technology (GNET), “Migration Moments: Extremist Adoption of Text-Based Instant Messaging Applications,” I explore how extremists of various groups have responded to increased contestation on Telegram, and the types of platforms that they are currently experimenting with. The report examines six instant messaging applications— BCM, Gab Chat, Hoop Messenger, Riot.im, Rocket.Chat, and TamTam— that have or may be exploited by extremist groups as potential alternatives to Telegram.

The report analyses five factors that are important to extremists in choosing a platform (history of extremist usage, suites of features, user accessibility, privacy and security, and the policy/regulatory landscape of the platform in question). Using these factors as categories of analysis, the report identifies three ongoing trends in extremist exploitation of instant messaging applications that can help tech companies, analysts, and practitioners understand which platforms extremists consider viable.

First, while the paper assesses that Telegram will remain the dominant platform in the short-term due to its popularity and unique suite of features, it argues that a long-term transition is inevitable. Following Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Matt Shear and David Jones’ conception of the “violent non-state actor (VNSA) technology adoption curve,” it is clear that the combination of Telegram’s increased enforcement with new messaging applications and technologies coming online will create strong push factors away from the platform and pull factors onto new platforms. This is not to say that extremists will abandon Telegram entirely, nor that transition will occur at equal rates across various extremist groups. However, as more groups experiment with alternatives to Telegram, more will find options outside of the platform that will guarantee stabler environments for messaging, the dissemination of propaganda, and recruitment.

Second, extremists’ current attempts to find alternatives to Telegram have been generally unsuccessful and limited to platforms that are very similar in form and structure to Telegram. For instance, after Telegram launched a “purge” of IS-related content from its platform in a Europol-organised effort in late 2019, groups of supporters immediately began moving content to TamTam. The latter platform was an attempt by a Russian company to create a near-clone of Telegram after the Russian Federation’s Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor), banned Telegram in Russia in 2018. Soon after IS accounts began popping up on TamTam, its host company also began cracking down on extremist content. In addition, on multiple occasions, major IS-affiliated content distributors have announced that they would switch their primary point of dissemination from Telegram to the Canadian messaging app Hoop Messenger. However, like TamTam, Hoop Messenger also frequently removes IS channels on the platform, making it difficult for the group’s supporters to establish a stable footprint.

To avoid content removal, extremists have also experimented with platforms that offer decentralised servers and data storage. By using decentralised servers, supporters of extremist groups can mitigate the effects of ToS enforcement by ensuring that data are stored on servers that the host company does not have access to. To date, many of these efforts have been rudimentary. Extremists often use applications (such as Rocket.Chat, Riot.im, or the defunct platform BCM) that have the option for decentralised data storage, but they do not take advantage of these offerings. In instances where they have, extremists often find that managing a server is laborious, resource-intensive, and subjects their communications to additional targeting by governments, third-party hackers, and extremist adversaries. Many of the decentralised chat apps available to extremists are glitchy, crash frequently, or under barrage from distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. When IS’ Nashir News Agency attempted to create Rocket.Chat channels on the decentralised Techhaven server, hackers pummeled the server with DDoS attacks, making the channels inaccessible.

Nevertheless, new services coming online will improve user accessibility for decentralised server management, which may assist extremist groups in mastering the platforms that offer it. While they are likely in the short-term to continue seeking out services that resemble Telegram, breakthroughs in decentralised messaging applications could be the harbinger of a long-term shift to another platform. Some extremist groups may also consider using messaging platforms with laissez-faire content regulation policies as viable supplements to Telegram. That notwithstanding, for the considerable future extremist groups of multiple persuasions will likely remain committed to Telegram as a productive space for messaging, propaganda dissemination, and recruitment. Experimentation with alternatives for contingency planning purposes will continue, but absent any major technological breakthroughs or new platforms of note, a large-scale shift away from Telegram is unlikely in the short-term.