David Klepper and Laurie Hinnant | Associated Press
PARIS. Photocard-style photographs are posted on online bulletin boards in black and white and look a bit like old-fashioned wanted posters.
“Jews own COVID like the rest of Hollywood,” reads the accompanying text. “Wake the people up.”
This post is one of many that white supremacists and far-right extremists are using to expand their reach and reach subscribers on the social network Telegram, according to the findings of researchers who viewed nearly half a million comments on pages called channels on Telegram, which they categorized as extreme right from January 2020 to June 2021.
This tactic has been successful, with nine of the top 10 most viewed posts in the sample studied by the researchers containing misleading statements about the safety of the vaccines or the pharmaceutical companies that make them. On one Telegram channel, the number of subscribers increased tenfold after he leaned towards the COVID-19 conspiracy theories.
“COVID-19 has been a catalyst for radicalization,” said study author Kiaran O’Connor, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in London. “It allows conspiracy theorists or extremists to create simple narratives by presenting them as we are against them, good versus evil.”
Other publications downplayed the severity of the coronavirus or advanced conspiracy theories about its origins. Many of the posts contain hate speech against Jews, Asians, women or other groups or aggressive rhetoric that are automatically removed from Facebook or Twitter for violating the standards of those sites.
Based in the United Arab Emirates, Telegram has many different users around the world, but it has become a favorite tool of some far-right people in part because the platform lacks content moderation like Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.
In a statement to the Associated Press, Telegram said it welcomes “the peaceful expression of ideas, including those with which we disagree.” In a statement, the moderators are monitoring user activity and reports “to rule out public incitement to violence.”
O’Connor said he believes the people behind these messages are trying to use fear and anxiety about COVID-19 to attract new employees whose loyalty could survive the pandemic.
Indeed, some direct recruitment has been mingled with reports of the COVID-19 conspiracy. For example, someone posted a link to news of a Long Island, New York synagogue on a channel popular with the far-right Proud Boys and added a message urging followers to join them. “Accept who you have been called,” reads the message, accompanied by a swastika.
Researchers have uncovered speculation that far-right groups on Telegram are working together. ISD researchers have linked two usernames on one Telegram channel to two prominent American far-right figures. One was planned for a 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white supremacist deliberately slammed into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, killing one and wounding 35 people.
According to Telegram Analytics, a service that stores statistics on approximately 150,000 Telegram channels on the TGStat website, the channel has grown steadily since the start of the pandemic and now has a reach of around 400,000 daily views. In May 2020, the channel had 5,000 subscribers; now it has 50,000 people.
This data is of particular concern given the spate of incidents around the world that indicate that some extremists are shifting from online rhetoric to offline action.
Gavin Yami, a physician and professor of public health at Duke University, wrote about the rise in threats to healthcare workers during the pandemic. He said the persecution is even worse for women, people of color who belong to religious minorities or LGBTQ people.
Yami, who is Jewish, has received threats and anti-Semitic messages, including one on Twitter calling for his family to be “executed”. He fears that racist conspiracy and scapegoat theories could persist even after the pandemic weakened.
“I’m worried that in a way the genie is out of the bottle,” Yami said.
The pandemic and the unrest it caused has been linked to a wave of harassment and attacks against Asian Americans. In Italy, far-right opponents of vaccination demands raged through union headquarters and the hospital. In Hawaii in August, some of those who harassed the lieutenant governor of this state, a Jew at his home during a vaccine protest, waved flyers with his picture and the word “Jew.”
Elsewhere, people have died after fake drugs, pharmacists have destroyed vaccine vials, and others have damaged 5G telecom towers since the pandemic began almost two years ago.
Cynthia Miller-Idriss, director of the American University’s Laboratory for Research and Innovation in Polarization and Extremism, which studies extreme right-wing extremism, said events such as the pandemic are causing many people to feel uneasy and seek an explanation. Conspiracy theories can provide an artificial sense of control, she said.
“COVID-19 has created fertile ground for hiring because so many people around the world feel unsettled,” Miller-Idriss said. “These racist conspiracy theories give people a sense of control, a sense of power over events that make people feel powerless.”
Fighting online extremism has challenged tech companies, which have said they must strike a balance between protecting free speech and eliminating hate speech. They also have to contend with increasingly sophisticated tactics from groups that have learned to evade the platform’s rules.
This month, Facebook announced the removal of a network of accounts in Italy and France that spread vaccine conspiracy theories and launched coordinated campaigns to harass journalists, doctors and health officials.
The network, called V_V, used both real and fake accounts and was monitored by a group of users who coordinated their activities on Telegram to hide their traces from Facebook, as the company’s investigators found out.
“They were looking to massively harass vaccine advocates to make their posts private or remove them, effectively suppressing their voices,” said Mike Dwilyanski, head of cyber espionage investigations at Meta, Facebook’s parent company.
O’Connor, an ISD researcher, said that sites like Telegram will continue to serve as a haven for extremists as long as they don’t have a policy of moderating larger platforms.
“The fences you see on other platforms don’t exist on Telegram,” O’Connor said. “This makes it a very attractive destination for extremists.”
Clapper reported from Providence, Rhode Island.