Half Measures to Remove Neo-Nazi Telegram Channels Do Not Work

June 23, 2021 Joshua Fisher-Birch

A neo-Nazi e-book released on Telegram on June 16 shows how the communications app continues to fail to remove white supremacist channels that support violence. The e-book was made by an online neo-Nazi collective that encourages acts of terrorism. On January 12, 2021, Telegram began a limited campaign to delete white supremacist and extreme right chats and channels after previously allowing the problem to fester. The removals have continued, with certain channels repeatedly being deleted, but others, with the same level of vitriol, mysteriously remain online. Within the context of Telegram’s ongoing effort to eliminate some of the most extreme neo-Nazi and white supremacist propagandists from its platform, the e-book release should be a wakeup call. It is clear that the platform needs to increase its efforts to disrupt and remove the extreme right communities that use Telegram to promote violence.

The e-book, at over 130 pages and written by an estimated 14 authors (with the potential for one individual having multiple pen names), consists of propaganda images and essays that endorse acts of terrorism and extreme violence against the government, infrastructure, law enforcement, the left, Jews, Muslims, people of color, LGBT people, and others. The e-book contains visuals and content that is identical to multiple Telegram channels that promote a white supremacist “terror-wave” style and have been repeatedly deleted by the platform. In fact, the e-book is essentially a full-length book version of some of the most notorious Telegram channels. There are tributes to white supremacist terrorists and mass murderers and exhortations for the reader to kill more people, including suggestions for target selection. The text falls squarely in violation of Telegram’s Terms of Service that prohibits users from “(promoting) violence on publicly viewable Telegram channels, bots, etc.” The e-book is notably not the manifesto of a single group but a propaganda, strategy, and morale document for an extremist movement that is not tied to a specific organization or structure.

The e-book was released in a way to ensure its longevity. Two versions of the document were uploaded, a compressed version and one with a larger file size more suitable for printing. Both were uploaded from a private Telegram channel, which does not allow non-subscribers to view the channel information or username. The message from the private channel containing the document was then shared on June 16 by a dedicated channel created for the single purpose of spreading the work, which was deleted by Telegram within 24 hours after it was created. Two successive channels were created, including one with an identical name to the deleted channel, but were not removed by Telegram at the time of writing. The two PDF files from the original private channel were then shared by at least 44 different chats and channels in seven days, accumulating 6,432 views of the original message containing the downloadable files, including potentially multiple views of the original message by the same user on different channels. Nine of the 44 chats and channels were deleted by Telegram between June 16 and June 23.

Telegram must do more to tackle the problem of white supremacist chats, channels, and propaganda that unambiguously violates their Terms of Service. The platform should ensure that private channels cannot widely distribute propaganda that users cannot report. With their opaque approach to content removal, it is unclear why Telegram would remove some white supremacist channels and not others—including those with the same display name as deleted channels. Ultimately, the release of the e-book shows that the removal of neo-Nazi and white supremacist Telegram accounts must be as complete as possible. Half measures will not only fail but have the potential to teach bad actors how to operate and circumvent content moderation systems to spread their hate.

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