On Feb. 15, a Telegram account called @truckersforfreedomglobal posted an update to its nearly 100,000 followers. “Governments are after unvaccinated people, following them on social media and coming to their doors. What it is to be done? [sic]”
The answer: “use a VPN,” which makes it “much harder for authorities to hack you.” The author included an affiliate link for a virtual private network company, which pays a commission to the promoter for each click.
The post was part of a flurry of online activity surrounding the trucker convoys earlier this year, which shut down central Ottawa for weeks. Its characteristic mix of paranoia and entrepreneurship, plus the fact that it appeared on Telegram, hints at the ways that the alt-tech movement has changed in the nearly two years since the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. In the aftermath of the violence that took the lives of five people, the social media app Parler, where planning for the attack took place and many rioters live posted photos and videos of themselves overrunning the Capitol, was temporarily shut down. Now, as the House Select Committee investigating the Capitol attack prepares for its final hearing, it is worth examining how alt-tech activists’ tactics have evolved since early 2021. Understanding how these networks operate, communicate, and solicit funds will be critical to efforts to curtail future violence.
A year and a half after the Capitol attack, the United States seems even more polarized and divided, with 1 in 5 Americans reportedly saying that they believe political violence is justified in some circumstances, according to a large-scale survey published in July by researchers from the University of California-Davis. The trucker caravan and the swift leap to Telegram as an organizing platform only one year after the assault on Congress are reminders that extremist currents are fast-moving and dynamic. The alt-tech movement and the far-right, anti-government, and white supremacist ideas and attitudes that birthed it are constantly adapting and evolving in concert with efforts to counter them.
While startup alt-tech platforms like Parler and Gettr are still relevant, today the platform of choice for many alt-tech activists is the Russian-made, UAE-based social media app Telegram. The shift appears to be a direct response to U.S. tech industry titans’ efforts to regulate false and violent content on their services. Kicked off of Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, those who hawk spurious COVID-19 cures, protection against 5G radiation, and online anonymizing technologies have found a home on far-right Telegram channels.
The first real-world signs of these shifting dynamics appeared early this year in January and February when thousands of semi-trailer trucks crowded into downtown Ottawa, blocking traffic and disrupting daily life for residents. Organizers of the so-called “Freedom Convoy” launched the movement to protest mandates for COVID vaccines for anyone crossing the U.S.-Canada border, but the demonstration quickly morphed into a generalized right-wing populist uprising against government responses to the pandemic. What began in Canada soon spread to the United States and beyond.
While the protests did not succeed in directly influencing policy decisions for either the U.S. or Canadian governments, they were successful in raising money and garnering public attention. $10 million in donations were made to the Freedom Convoy GoFundMe fundraising page, although GoFundMe subsequently froze the money on the grounds that the donations violated the platform’s terms of service. In the immediate aftermath, the competitor site GiveSendGo received $8.7 million in donations in a matter of days.
Before long, the convoy had inspired a wave of similar protests in the United States, including an effort to drive convoy traffic to Washington, D.C. There was a notable overlap in themes and tone as well as networks of supporters between both the American and Canadian Freedom Convoy protest movements and participants in the Jan.6 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol.
At the same time, as reported in Mother Jones, Telegram became a key hub for planning similar protests in the United States and beyond. Telegram’s light moderation touch and large user base made it the ideal place for anti-vax moms to meet anti-government truckers and form the digital grassroots of an increasingly global movement. Supporters began to see the Canadian trucker protest as a repeatable model, and soon Telegram channels popped up for trucker caravans around the world.
Telegram is fast becoming a preferred platform of last resort for users who run afoul of other sites’ terms of service. Evolving from a peer-to-peer messaging service into one of the world’s largest social media platforms, Telegram takes a hands-off approach to content moderation. This has made it a haven for groups that are routinely deplatformed from other sites such as white supremacists, anti-government militias, and anti-vaccine activists. While the site’s users skew toward India, Indonesia, Iran, and Russia, Telegram has seen robust worldwide growth in recent years, reaching 700 million users worldwide in June. In many parts of the world, it’s used by basically everyone. In the U.S. and Canada, though, it’s seen particular growth in certain niches, like the alt-tech ecosystem.
Starting in February, we searched for Telegram channels with the largest amounts of followers and found that the highest-ranking channels at the time that mentioned “truckers” also mentioned the term “truckers for freedom.” We collected a year’s worth of data from 18 of these channels covering February 2021 through February 2022. While not a comprehensive review of all trucker protest-supporting Telegram channels, these data give us some insight into the kinds of conversations that occurred under the banner of a global movement.
In our analysis, very little if any of the content of these channels focused exclusively on the execution of a caravan protest—who should go where when. Instead, on the discussion was devoted to raising awareness, encouraging donations to specific links, and calling out notable individuals for attention. We also observed determined efforts in this virtual caravan to profit from anti-government protests.
In both the prominent channels and the smaller ones in our collection, appeals abound to protect oneself from radiation, surveillance, the “poison jab,” and the collapse of society. In turn, these channels hawk a comprehensive line of products to fit the bill. For example, a post on @truckersforfreedomusa from Feb. 13 advertised emergency food supplies with the warning that “[o]nce it happens, it’s already too late.”
Other messaging emphasized health and wellness. One Feb. 15 post found on @freedom_convoy_messages_uncensored_news promoted an anti-cavity treatment capable of rebuilding “teeth and gums almost overnight!”
Online anonymizing technology also figures prominently in the collection. For example, the popular channel @truckersforfreedomglobal relentlessly promoted the use of a VPN to protect oneself from prying government eyes, such as in a Feb. 4 post that stated “they cant shut this funding down” [sic] and urging readers to “buy a VPN service.”
This might seem like a bit of innocuous spam, but it tells us a lot about the connections within Telegram. The exact same offer link—posted by channel owners, not random users—appears in both @truckersforfreedomglobal and @freedomideasnovax. In fact, it appears in 64 different posts in our collection since Jan. 1, 2022. Going back to October 2021, the link occurs more than 200 times, originally posted by @freedomideasnovax. This pattern of two Telegram channels repeatedly posting an identical affiliate link—which funnels money to the link’s creator—suggests a fundamental connection between the channels. The two channels may even share an owner. Based on industry averages for affiliate links and the wide reach of these channels, we estimate that at the height of the trucker convoys this single link may have earned as much as $3,000 per day.
The reach of a highly subscribed channel on Telegram—and the ability of the platform’s channel format to bring users together around a tightly curated stream of content—lends itself to online organizing. The channel host has authority about what content is broadcast, making it a handy go-to place for information and updates. The username of the administrator is also not displayed, with the channel name being listed as the author of posts instead. Because it provides both centralization and some degree of anonymity, the Telegram channel format lends itself to the interdependent activities of propagandizing and profiteering.
The Telegram posts we examined make up a small volume of the overall activity online surrounding the 2022 trucker protests in the U.S. and worldwide. But they indicate a key dynamic to watch for as protests threaten to re-emerge in the United States surrounding both the 2022 midterms and former President Donald Trump’s legal troubles. Protests are not just fundraising opportunities for big-name activists or political candidates. Rather, they create opportunities for smaller-scale entrepreneurs and opportunists to cash in, too. In turn, this incentivizes those benefiting to stoke the sound and fury of right-wing spectacle, creating a self-sustaining feedback loop that drives toward ever more extreme politics.
The trucker convoys also heralded Telegram’s arrival as a major player on the alt-tech stage. With its growing user base, minimal moderation, and anonymity-friendly privacy policies, Telegram offers opportunities for broadcasting messages to potentially huge audiences with little risk of being deplatformed, moderated, or even identified.
From Jan. 6, 2021, to February 2022, the use of alt-tech by right-wing extremists underwent a phase change. In the 12 months between the Capitol insurrection and the trucker convoy protest in Ottawa, Parler was deplatformed, then re-booted, while Telegram expanded its reach with 430 million downloads in 2021 alone. This shift demonstrates that the world of alt-tech remains fit and agile. That is, the political movements that use these platforms show a willingness to change and adapt to the most useful available technologies, and the landscape of those technologies is constantly shifting.
Although the Jan. 6 Committee has worked to evaluate the role of social media and tech in fueling extremist violence, this scrutiny has been episodic. Understanding the rapidly changing terrain of alt-tech demands constant attention to multiple platforms that wax and wane in popularity. It might be tempting for policymakers at this stage to view events like the Jan. 6 attack and the trucker convoys as discrete episodes, but both are expressions of a durable and adaptable movement that sustains itself online between violent outbursts. To that end, Congress should consider holding a dedicated hearing to shine a light on what is clearly a permanent trend in our contemporary politics. Failure to do so could easily set conditions for another insurrection come 2024.
Crystal Nguyen contributed research for this article.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.