Posted on April 11, 2020

White Supremacist Groups Are Recruiting With Help From Coronavirus — and a Popular Messaging App

Billy Perrigo, Time, April 8, 2020


As COVID-19 continues to spread around the world, white supremacists are seizing upon it as a new and powerful addition to their arsenal. Their messaging often happens on Telegram, which over the last year has become a staging ground for extremist groups, according to the Anti Defamation League. Telegram channels associated with white supremacy and racism grew by more than 6,000 users over the month of March, according to data shared exclusively with TIME by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based think tank that monitors extremism and disinformation. One white supremacist channel specifically focused on messaging related to COVID-19 grew its user base from just 300 users to 2,700 in that month alone — a growth of 800%.

In openly-accessible Telegram channels with thousands of members, TIME observed users sharing memes and messages — some couched in purported irony — encouraging people with the disease to infect others, specifically ethnic minorities. “We’ve seen a number of cases of people suggesting that they should deliberately spread it, making themselves into a bio weapon,” says Jacob Davey, a senior research manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. {snip}



While Telegram channels tend to reach relatively few people compared to larger social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook pages, experts say they are equally if not more dangerous as hubs for extremists. {snip}

Telegram states on its web site that it will not engage in “politically motivated censorship.” It says that while it does remove terrorist content, “we will not block anybody who peacefully expresses alternative opinions.” But analysts argue much of the white supremacist content on Telegram meets the definition of terrorism. {snip}

High anxieties surrounding traumatic global events often correlate with the rise of new conspiracy theories. But a new factor driving the increase in coronavirus-related extremism, experts say, is that so many people are now spending time online while confined to their homes. {snip}


One strand of white supremacist thought, visible in Telegram channels, that has seen a rapid uptick as coronavirus spreads is “accelerationism,” a fringe philosophy that calls for adherents to do all they can to hasten societal collapse and bring a white supremacist government to power in the U.S. “This is a group of the most extreme extremists who are actively welcoming chaos and violence,” says the SPLC’s Cassie Miller. “They have welcomed coronavirus, because it means that we might get pushed closer to civilizational collapse, which is their goal because only after that happens can they build their white ethnostate.”

Telegram is the main place on the Internet where accelerationists congregate, Miller says. “It is the friendliest platform to their thinking,” she says. “They haven’t seemed to make any moves to remove this content.”

Telegram is not just used by extremists: it is also popular among activists and journalists because of its privacy credentials. But it has become a hub for white supremacists at the same time that mainstream social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have tried to crack down on hate speech and violent extremism. {snip}