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Migration Moments: Extremist Adoption of Text-Based Instant Messaging Applications

Migration Moments: Extremist Adoption of Text-Based Instant Messaging Applications
9th November 2020 GNET Team
GNET Team
In Report-Gnet

Please read on for the Introduction.

This report examines the patchwork of online text‑based instant messaging applications preferred by jihadist and far‑right extremist groups, with a focus on charting their technical affordances and their host companies’ stances on user privacy, security and regulation. To this end, the report analyses six online messaging services (BCM, Gab Chat, Hoop Messenger, Riot.im, Rocket.Chat and TamTam) that have been or may be used in conjunction with Telegram by extremist groups.

Currently, many supporters of various extremist groups are concentrated on the online instant messaging service Telegram, although some are attempting to make inroads to other platforms. Telegram is consistently referred to as the “platform of choice” for jihadists online, most notably supporters of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (IS), but it has also been continuously popular among extreme right‑wing movements. Analysts and scholars of online extremism, as well as many governments, consider Telegram a stable communications platform for extremist groups of multiple persuasions due to its suite of features, including end‑to‑end encrypted communications for its users and its guarantees of anonymity and privacy. Extremists use Telegram channels and groups as staging grounds for a “multiplatform zeitgeist,” wherein media content is rebroadcast from Telegram onto other messaging platforms and public‑facing websites.

However, recent changes to Telegram’s terms of service and privacy policies are weakening the affordances the platform provides to extremist groups. For example, in April 2018, Telegram added Section 8.3 to its privacy policy. The section, a departure from Telegram’s previous moratorium on information sharing with governments, states that “if Telegram receives a court order that confirms you’re a terror suspect, we may disclose your IP address and phone number to the relevant authorities.” Concurrent with the change in its privacy policy, Telegram also began participating in “Referral Action Days” organised by Europol and individual European Union law enforcement agencies. During the eleventh referral action day, the scope of Telegram’s participation was merely to observe European law enforcement agencies’ process for detecting and identifying terrorist content.

However, during the sixteenth referral action day in November 2019, Telegram collaborated with Europol and industry partners Google, Twitter and Instagram.8 Together, the platforms removed a total of 26,000 items of IS propaganda, including accounts, channels, groups, videos and other publications from their sites. Commenting on the action, Belgian federal prosecutor Eric Van Der Sypt claimed that as a result of the mass takedown, IS “was not present on the internet anymore” for the time being.

Despite Van Der Sypt’s initial assessment, extremist groups retained a presence on Telegram after the referral action days. While the operation dealt a temporary blow to IS supporters on Telegram, Global Network on Extremism and Technology analyses found that “a stubborn remnant of its core presence” remained on the service, and “dissemination of both official and unofficial propaganda continues at a steady pace.” IS supporters, the only group known to have been targeted in the effort, quickly synthesised a presence on several alternate online instant messaging platforms. Through decentralisation, IS supporters were able to stay online as “dispersal to these dozen‑plus platforms has further decentralized jihadist propaganda dissemination,” but IS has “increased its exposure” by spreading the content across the web. In July 2020, a Europol assessment declared that “efforts to establish an IS presence online are continuing across several platforms, including Telegram.” Officials involved in the Telegram referral action days commented that the efforts were largely focused on IS supporters, leaving other jihadist groups and other violent extremists largely unaffected by the crackdown.

Throughout the takedowns of IS‑related content on Telegram, far‑right extremist groups sustained their large presence on the platform largely unimpeded by content removal efforts. Yet this dynamic may be slowly changing. This summer, Telegram coordinated mass takedowns of prominent far‑right extremist channels and groups on its platform. The platform suspended some of the most violent and caustic right‑wing extremist channels, including Terrorwave Refined, a “central hub” for the violent far‑right on Telegram, as well as channels connected to the Misanthropic Division and RapeKrieg. Despite the removals, most far‑right channels on Telegram were unaffected and administrators of deleted channels continue efforts to post content on the platform. It remains to be seen whether far‑right extremists on Telegram will seriously consider the use of another platform or, indeed, whether Telegram’s efforts will continue.

An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated that Moonshot is owned by Google. This has now been corrected.

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