Steve January 13, 2021

Telegram, a Dubai-based chat app that has attracted a surge of new users, including some far-right Trump supporters fleeing purges at other sites, has begun a rare purge of American extremist content.

At least 15 extremist Telegram channels — akin to chatrooms where the founders have moderating power — have recently been banned, according to a tally by NBC News. Content has been censored on several others.

Some pro-Trump zealots have moved to Telegram in recent days to plan violence on Jan. 20, the day Joe Biden is scheduled to be inaugurated.

One of the deleted channels, which proclaimed itself to be “eco-fascist,” started in early June, hosting white supremacist content from its beginning. In the wake of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S.Capitol, its users posted Army manuals with bombmaking and munitions-making information.

Megan Squire, a professor of computer science at Elon University and a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremist groups, said that while Telegram’s approach to moderating extremist content tends to be “scattershot,” many of the recent bans are new.

“A lot of these channels that have been banned in the last day have been up for months or years,” Squire said. “I’ve been personally attacked on these channels before, and this is definitely new action on their part.”

Despite the deletions, a number of other channels that are open to the public are still actively posting explicitly white supremacist and pro-Nazi content.

“We have seen some incredible growth on our humble channel over the past few days,” wrote a moderator of one explicitly Nazi channel.

“We are working on alternative communication methods, but it appears several large channels are getting removed by Telegram as I type this.”

Telegram did not respond to request for comment. The company, founded in 2013 by Pavel Durov, a Russian native who fled Vladimir Putin’s government, has historically been reluctant to moderate its users. It began deleting openly-pro ISIS channels only in 2015, after the terrorist attacks in Paris that killed more than 125 people.

Right-wing extremist content has percolated for years on social media, and major platforms have been reluctant to censor it. Facebook banned content like claims of white supremacy in 2019, and Twitter in 2018 began banning some high-profile accounts that violated its policies on abuse and harassment.

Those efforts were accelerated after Trump supporters stormed the Capitol last week, however. Twitter banned more than 70,000 accounts that pushed QAnon conspiracy theories, and it and Facebook have banned Trump’s accounts, citing fears that he will use them to incite more violence.

Some conservative users had flocked to Telegram from Parler, a Twitter-like platform regarded as a safe haven for right-wing speech. But Apple and Google recently removed the Parler app from their app stores, and Amazon Web Services, which hosted the service, kicked it off, saying it violated its terms of service. Parler’s future remains uncertain, and its CEO has publicly doubted whether it will return.

On Tuesday, Durov posted that Telegram had passed 500 million monthly users, with 25 million of them having joined in the previous three days. There’s little indication that pro-Trump extremists make up a sizable proportion of those users. The vast majority of new users were from Asia, Europe and Latin America, he said.

He added that people “no longer want to be held hostage by tech monopolies,” an apparent reference to WhatsApp’s changing its terms of service. WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, is Telegram’s closest competitor.

Telegram also flagged an account that purported to be Trump’s, which for years had archived Trump’s tweets but in recent days began posting official White House statements, with a red “SCAM” tag Wednesday.

Former Assistant FBI Director Frank Figliuzzi, an NBC News national security analyst, said such crackdowns “help to keep the violent extremists off-balance and wondering where to go next.”

“As they scramble to find new homes, they inevitably make mistakes and leave clues and trails that law enforcement can use to identify and defeat them,” Figliuzzi said.

Kevin Collier

Kevin Collier is a reporter covering cybersecurity, privacy and technology policy for NBC News.

Image:  Anna Schecter

Anna Schecter is a producer for the NBC News Investigations Unit.

Ezra Kaplan

Ezra Kaplan is a producer for NBC News.

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