The alleged shooter’s manifesto was everywhere in the hours after the El Paso, Texas, Walmart shooting on Saturday. It was reposted again and again on 8chan, where gunman Patrick Crusius appears to have first uploaded his white nationalist screed. It could be seen on mainstream platforms like Twitter and Facebook, alt-right haunts like Gab and Discord servers, and all over a platform that might be best known as a tool for pro-democracy activists: Telegram.
About an hour after Crusius opened fire, someone posted a security-camera image of the shooter to a Telegram channel called “Tucker’s Accelerationists National Revivalist Alliance” (1,200 members) and someone else replied, “Saint Patrick.” Another member then wrote, “SAINT PATRICK??????? HE KILLED AN INFANT, HOW DO YOU KNOW THAT INFANT ISNT WHITE YOU FUCKING IMBECILE.” That thread was then reposted to the “Random Anon Best /Pol/ Telegram Channel” (3,200 members), where later in the day, someone posted a Twitter screenshot to show that the El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, shootings were both trending. “Dude, why are you not naming the Jews?” someone replied. An admin of another channel, “/CIG/ telegram” (2,500 members) wrote of the El Paso massacre, “Folks, we need to acknowledge that there is a race war.” Well-known white nationalists like Nick Fuentes and Christopher Cantwell posted to Telegram too. “Another mass shooting? This is tragic. When will we finally do the right thing, and get rid of the Jews who cause all of this suffering?” Cantwell asked his followers on Saturday.
As social networks like Facebook and Twitter have cracked down more aggressively on hate speech over the past year or so, one of the less-discussed places where white supremacists, violent men’s groups, anti-PC agitators, and trolls of various stripes have flocked to is Telegram. At the same time, democracy activists in Hong Kong have relied on Telegram to coordinate protests against new restrictions from the Chinese government, illustrating that its intended purpose is alive and well. Also at the same time, the app has made a cameo in Puerto Rican politics, as the leak of nearly 900 pages of sexist, debasing, and homophobic messages from a Telegram group chat led to popular protests and the governor’s resignation, illustrating that, when they think no one is eavesdropping, politicians and their confidantes will still say anything.
Telegram supports private messaging, private group chats, and audio calls—all of which are reliably encrypted—for its hundreds of millions of members. But its ability to create public pages and groups has provided a platform for fallen stars on the extreme right. “Instagram is going to ban me in minutes,” wrote Laura Loomer, a popular right-wing social media figure known for her anti-Muslim and conspiracy-laden rhetoric, in May when Facebook gave Loomer and others a heads-up before suspending their accounts for violating its rules. “Sign up for my Telegram,” she said. On Telegram, Loomer posts multiple times a day to more than 11,800 subscribers. (On Instagram, she had more than 115,000 followers.)
That Telegram has proved useful for such a wide variety of communities isn’t surprising. That’s what happens on social media, which is why the major social companies like to describe their services as politically neutral tools. Telegram’s commitment to protecting freedom of speech above all else, undergirded by the app’s emphasis on strong encryption, has provided an attractive home for many communities, activist or otherwise.
Launched in 2013, Telegram wasn’t designed for engagement and amplification like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are, but rather as a service for protecting free speech and facilitating communication against the backdrop of an authoritarian regime. Its founder and CEO, Pavel Durov, is sometimes called the Mark Zuckerberg of Russia: Seven years before starting Telegram, Durov built the most popular social network in Russia, VKontakte, when he was still in college. And he made a fortune. But after refusing to comply with Kremlin orders to shut down the pages of activists and government opposition groups, Kremlin-linked investors took over VKontakte in early 2013. Durov fled Russia.
Later that year, Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency had been running a dragnet government surveillance program that relied in part on the United States’ leading technology companies, sucking up and surveilling private communications. Durov was shocked. “Snowden’s revelations shattered my image of the Western world and democratic society,” he said in a 60 Minutes interview in 2016. Wanting to create a chat app to evade snooping in any country, he built Telegram.
Nine years after launching, Telegram has become a crucial way for activists to communicate, as events in Hong Kong have shown. When plainclothes police held Colin Cheung by the jaw and tried to pry open his eyes earlier this summer, they wanted to use his face to unlock his phone—and get access to a 50,000-member Telegram group that they claimed he co-founded, according to the New York Times. Police arrested one founder of a Telegram group chat with 20,000 subscribers in Hong Kong last month, and as protesters have continued to march all summer, the app has reportedly been a lifeline for activists who trust that Telegram’s end-to-end encryption will prevent their activity from being intercepted by law enforcement.
Telegram is attractive to anyone wary of government spying or corporate data collection, since the organization is nonprofit and does not monetize user information. (Telegram is funded completely by Durov and has no outside investors.) It also promises to never remove content from users posted to private channels. The app’s FAQ explains that “if criticizing the government is illegal in some country, Telegram won’t be a part of such politically motivated censorship.” If a country does demand that Telegram hand over data on its users, its decryption keys are spread across multiple data centers around the globe. “Telegram can be forced to give up data only if an issue is grave and universal enough to pass the scrutiny of several different legal systems around the world,” the company says, adding that so far the company has relinquished “0 bytes of user data to third parties, including governments.”
While Telegram says it keeps all private communications cloaked from snooping, in 2015, Telegram stepped back somewhat from its staunch anti-censorship position and removed dozens of public channels used by members of ISIS. “Public channels have nothing to do with privacy,” Durov said. “ISIS public channels will be blocked.”
Overall, Telegram’s security features and lack of profit motive have made it an ideal place for people who fear censorship, including human rights activists in Russia, Iran, and Hong Kong. But these days in the U.S., some of the most vocal people who are crying censorship are fringe-right figures and groups. It’s not the government doing the censoring, they say, but the left-leaning technology companies that have started to ban them. The “Western chauvinist group” the Proud Boys have a channel that’s just “for the purpose of mass Retweeting/sharing tweets and Facebook post that expose Antifa.” (Translation: It’s a channel that coordinates online harassment campaigns against anti-racist activists.) Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes—who is banned from Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter—has 6,800 subscribers to his Telegram channel, anti-PC personality Milo Yiannopoulos, also banned by the mainstream social media platforms, has 18,400 followers on Telegram. Infowars’ Alex Jones has an outpost on Telegram where he continues to peddle men’s energy supplements and unfounded, conspiratorial headlines to his 9,300 subscribers—a far cry from the audience of around 1.6 million he had gained on Facebook before it banned him. Any character who has been kicked off major social media platforms for violating policies on hate speech can very likely be found on Telegram now. (Some figures on the far right are also using an app called Parler, which launched last August. It brands itself as a free-speech alternative to Twitter.)
This development might be inevitable on a platform designed to circumvent censorship in countries like Russia and mass surveillance in the United States. “An absolutist approach to free speech is a classic door that white supremacists have been driving their trucks through for decades,” said Jessie Daniels, a professor of sociology at Hunter College, CUNY, who has written several books about white supremacy and technology. “They know that there’s no real counter to that stance if they show up.” Free speech, says Daniels, is often something that people on the left want to protect no matter what as a bedrock of democracy, even when white supremacists have always used free speech to elevate anti-democratic, racist, and even genocidal ideas. White supremacists are often quick to adopt new technologies where there aren’t rules or community standards that will get in their way, Daniels said. For that reason, she calls these groups “innovation opportunists.”
Despite Telegram’s lofty mission, there are easily findable corners of the app that are as ugly as 8chan or Gab. There’s a public Telegram channel called NATIONALE SOZIALISTISCHE (more than 6,200 subscribers) where people post Nazi regalia and memes about killing Jewish people. The Alt-Right Shitlords Inc. channel (4,350 subscribers) is a self-described home base “for all your pure blooded American shitposting needs,” which appears to mean sharing memes about building a white ethnostate and putting Jewish people in ovens. In one day, I found more than 100 channels dedicated to hating Jewish, Muslim, black, and Latino people; celebrating fascism and white supremacy; and posting memes that glorify Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan. Plenty have more than 1,000 subscribers. Every few days, many of these channels post lists of other similar hateful communities of users to join on Telegram.
In some ways, Telegram faces the same challenge as all social media: It wants to provide a safe platform for everyone, but some of those people want to cause harm. One big difference between Telegram and other platforms is that Telegram isn’t American (its developers are based in Dubai), so it’s not beholden to pressures from Congress to clean up its act or face regulation. It’s also not trying to make money, so fears of a tarnished brand probably don’t factor into the app’s governance, either.
As with the ISIS episode, Telegram will sometimes intervene. Last year, Telegram got booted from Apple’s App Store because it hosted “inappropriate content”; it was restored within 48 hours after new filters were put in place. Now, when attempting to visit some neo-Nazi or racist meme channels on an iPhone—for example, one called “There Is No Political Solution”—you’ll encounter a message that reads: “Unfortunately, this channel couldn’t be displayed on your device because it violates Apple App Store Review Guidelines, section 1.1.1.” The same channel can be found if you aren’t using an Apple device. Telegram, which wants to be available to any possible user, needs to interoperate with major infrastructure companies, like Apple and Google. Which means if it faces a form of accountability, it’s from Silicon Valley. (Telegram did not respond to questions about when it decides to moderate content.)
This kind of incentive actually does make a difference. 8chan, for example, actually did remove the original post of the alleged El Paso shooter’s manifest, probably hoping not to run afoul of the services it needs to operate. The security and infrastructure provider Cloudflare pulled its service anyway. Slowly, even at Telegram, moderation appears to be moving up the priority list, too.