Right-wing groups on chat apps like Telegram are swelling with new members after Parler disappeared and a backlash against Facebook and Twitter, making it harder for law enforcement to track where the next attack could come from.
After the attack on the U.S. Capitol last week, major tech companies clamped down on right-wing extremists, kicking thousands of conspiracy theory accounts off Twitter and shutting down the social network Parler. But those conversations usually took place in the open on well-documented, public-facing channels.
Now, conversations about potential attacks and protests around Inauguration Day are taking place on a wide mix of public and private feeds and chats on Dubai-based Telegram and other services like MeWe, according to law enforcement officials and extremism researchers.
The development has police forces concerned about being able to predict and respond to protests and potential attacks in the days leading up the Jan. 20 inauguration.
“One of the advantages that we had when those fringe groups were available and communicating in the open, with Facebook, Twitter and Parler, is that it was an open source way to track the flow of protest interest,” said Sgt. Nick Street, a public information officer for the Utah Highway Patrol, which provides security for the state Capitol in Salt Lake City. “That was like a nice slow-pitch softball. It was easy to see coming and easy to make contact with.”
Outrage against the big social media networks for banning President Donald Trump is also contributing to a surge of users not associated with violent groups heading to these smaller apps. Other people are joining out of privacy concerns about big tech.
On Jan. 12, Telegram was the fifth most-downloaded app in the United States, compared towith its previous ranking of 110th before the Capitol attack, according to app research firm App Annie. Signal, another encrypted chat app, was number oneNo. 1, up from its ranking of 750 on Jan. 4. On Friday, Signal’s network went down for some people, after “millions upon millions of new users” overwhelmed the company’s servers. “We are working hard to restore service for them as quickly as possible,” Signal posted on Twitter.
MeWe, a social network that pitches itself as an alternative to Big Tech, jumped to 12th, after usually placing outside of the top 1,000 apps. Download rankings for WhatsApp and Facebook’s other chat app, Messenger, have dipped slightly from last week but WhatsApp is still in the top 40 and Messenger is in the top 20, according to App Annie.
“With Parler and Gab down, and Twitter and Facebook and Instagram becoming less hospitable, Telegram will be a main platform they turn to,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, a terrorism and extremism researcher at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Gab is another social network popular with right-wing groups that hasn’t been available on Apple and Google’s app store for years.
Telegram, which offers both encrypted chat rooms and public-facing groups anyone can join, said it was working to block public calls to violence. Signal declined to comment on which groups are driving its growth. In its terms of service, Signal prohibits the use of its app for illegal purposes. David Westreich, a spokesman for MeWe, said the platform has strict rules against hate, calls to violence and bullying, and responds quickly by taking down accounts that are flagged.
Twitter banned Trump indefinitely last week for inciting violence. Facebook suspended him until at least after President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, and on Tuesday, Google-owned YouTube blocked him from uploading new videos for seven days.
But the tech giants also acted against hateful and violence speech beyond their own platforms. Apple and Google blocked Parler from their app stores and Amazon stopped providing crucial web infrastructure to the company, effectively taking it off the Internet.
Beyond forcing far-right and militia groups deeper into Telegram and other platforms, the action also has given a broader group of Trump supporters who aren’t associated with violent groups a reason to move their online activity to chat and text messaging apps out of protest or distrust of Facebook and Twitter.
Danielle Meister, a WhatsApp spokesperson, said the policy change doesn’t give Facebook access to private WhatsApp messages and was only meant to allow businesses who use WhatsApp to store data on Facebook servers if they chose to.
“The update does not change WhatsApp’s data sharing practices with Facebook and does not impact how people communicate privately with friends or family,” Meister said. “WhatsApp remains deeply committed to protecting people’s privacy.”
Trump supporters looking for communities of like-minded people will likely find Telegram to be more extreme than the Facebook groups and Twitter feeds they’re used to, said Amarasingam.
“It’s not simply pro-Trump content, mildly complaining about election fraud. Instead, it’s openly anti-Semitic, violent, bomb making materials and so on. People coming to Telegram may be in for a surprise in that sense,” Amarasingam said.
Telegram has long been a gathering place for right-wing groups. The company has generally been resistant to taking down content from its app. In the past, it was used heavily by Islamic State supporters before European police worked with the company to take down accounts associated with the terror group. Right wing groups have operated freely until this week, when Telegram took down several well-known public groups filled with racist posts. But many others remain publicly available, and new members are joining.
“We keep watching the situation closely and blocking new public calls to violence as they appear,” said Mike Ravdonikas, a spokesman for Telegram.
The news that the FBI is aggressively tracking down rioters who participated in the Capitol attack, and a relative lack of messaging from Trump himself has led to a confusing churn of debate on right wing message boards on Telegram and elsewhere.
The right wing extremists themselves are expressing frustration that they are left without clear guidance by any central figure as to what to do, when and where to gather, said a Congressional aide and researchers tracking extremism.
The followers now appear fragmented, in part because they can no longer look to “instructions” from Trump now that he’s been banned from Twitter, said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.
The fragmentary information included plans by The Three Percenters, a far-right militia-style group, to come to Washington, D.C. armed, and mentions of bombs and explosives, but most of the information was not specific about dates or locations, the aide said.
On Wednesday night, following his impeachment, Trump released a video statement condemning the violence seen at the U.S. Capitol. It “landed like a dud” among his followers, said Chris Sampson, chief of research at the Terror Asymmetrics Project on Strategy, Tactics and Radical Ideologies, a defense research institute.
Sampson pointed to a post shared widely on Telegram that said: “Trump betrayed the patriots by accepting defeat. The only way to save America is war. Full-blown Holy war.”
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The Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson, Matthew LaPlante and Heather Kelly contributed to this report.