In the past few months, Telegram has skyrocketed in popularity, hitting 550 million monthly active users in July 2021, which makes it the fifth-most-used messaging app in the world. And as a wave of government-mandated internet shutdowns washes over the world, the app has been praised for its resistance to censorship and its role in helping protesters from Belarus to Myanmar organize. But Telegram’s libertarian ethos has a darker side, says the anti-racism group Hope Not Hate: The app is one of the vilest pits of anti-Semitism you can find on the internet. And the problem is growing worse by the day.
A new report from Hope Not Hate, focused on the spread of anti-Semitism online and due to be published in full today, has found that Telegram is foremost among major internet platforms in providing a “safe haven” for anti-Semites and extremists who have been booted from other social networks. This notably includes believers and peddlers of QAnon, the anti-Semitism-suffused conspiracy theory linked to the January 6, 2021, storming of the US Capitol.
The report points out that several channels devoted to anti-Semitic conspiracism, or to straight-up violent anti-Semitic content, have grown dramatically in 2021—quite unimpeded by Telegram’s moderation. One of these, Dismantling the Cabal, which trafficks in the New World Order conspiracy theory that launched in February 2021, has to date gained over 90,000 followers; another, run by an anti-semitic QAnon advocate dubbed GhostEzra, has garnered a following of 333,000. Hope Not Hate also found that at least 120 Telegram groups and channels have shared the racist, anti-Semitic manifesto penned by the terrorist who attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March 2019, killing 51. Telegram has taken no action against that content. Telegram’s press office did not respond to a request for comment.
“If you compare this [inaction] to how Telegram has dealt with Islamic extremism and terrorism, it is a night-and-day difference,” says Patrik Hermansson, a researcher with Hope Not Hate. In 2019, the app removed more than 43,000 bots and channels linked to the Islamic State terror group as part of a Europol operation. Hermansson claims that some of the anti-Semitic content shared on Telegram amounts to terror advocacy and should be cracked down on accordingly.
Hope Not Hate found that conspiracy theories in general have been burgeoning online since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, and its attendant lockdowns and social distancing measures. Periods of uncertainty and isolation tend to give rise to all sorts of anti-establishment and anti-elite narratives, and the early phases of the pandemic were characterized by conspiracism on issues ranging from 5G to Bill Gates’ supposed role in the pandemic. But as University of Warwick philosophy professor Quassim Cassam detailed in a recent study, most conspiracy theories eventually drift toward blaming a small group of people for whatever fictitious conspiracy they posit; almost invariably, that group is coded as Jewish. The fact that online anti-Semitism is resurgent in a post-Covid world flooded with conspiracy theories is, therefore, grimly unsurprising.
The case of QAnon highlights this perfectly. This conspiracy theory maintains that the world is ruled by an elite cabal of satanist and pedophiliac politicians, financiers, and Hollywood actors, who spend their days chugging children’s blood in order to stay young—a clear riff on the old anti-Semitic blood libel canard. While eminently American in its origins—former president Donald Trump is portrayed as a white knight, and according to one study, one out of five people in the US is a QAnon believer—over time the QAnon conspiracy theory has broadened its focus to encompass Covid-19 trutherism, anti-lockdown activists, and other far-right tropes, a move that has earned it followers in many European countries, with Germany topping the list.
Following a crackdown on QAnon groups and accounts on all major social platforms—partly as a result of the January 6 insurrection—many QAnonists repaired to Telegram, quickly creating a vast network of interconnected channels. Hope Not Hate points out that, since their move on Telegram—and piggybacking on the disillusionment of the pro-Trump crowd in the wake of Joe Biden’s inauguration—some QAnon believers and influencers have embraced a more bald-faced kind of anti-Semitism, finding synergies with a preexisting, florid far-right community on the app.
One of the most prominent examples of this lurch, Hope Not Hate found, is a channel run by GhostEzra, a QAnon influencer who over time has transmogrified into a hub of anti-Semitic content, often blaming Jews or “Zionists” for various Covid-related made-up conspiracies including “world domination.” GhostEzra—whom an investigation by the research outfit Logically has identified as a Florida man named Robert Smart—has seen his following balloon to over 330,000 since he first posted on Telegram on January 8, 2021.
According to Hermansson, the factors that have made Telegram the ideal platform for anti-Semitism range from the anonymity it grants its users to its structure. It allows for the easy cross-posting of a vast array of media content: videos, pictures, text files, and voice notes are all supported on Telegram, and individual texts can be shared from one chat group to another like social media posts. First and foremost, however, he thinks that Telegram is attractive to anti-Semites because of its “general lack of moderation.”
On Telegram, he says, it is easy to find copies of overtly anti-Semitic movies or texts, including the fabricated tract “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” alongside violent imagery calling for the killing of Jewish people, or anti-Jewish memes such as “the Happy Merchant,” a stereotypical rendition of a grinning, hook-nosed Jewish man, which has been banished from most internet platforms. “If you flag it on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, they will remove it quickly,” Hermansson says. “Because its anti-Semitism is so obvious.”
Instead, he says, Telegram has been unresponsive to Hope Not Hate's flagging of extremist anti-Semitic channels and accounts. Hermansson says that the organization has reached out to the platform with a list of the worst-offending channels advocating for terror. “And they're still up there. The ones that have disappeared have disappeared of their own accord,” he says. “Not because of Telegram.”
That is dangerous, he says, because the impact of these channels can very easily bleed into the offline world. The British fascist group Patriotic Alternative has established a significant presence on Telegram, while the transnational neo-Nazi outfit AtomWaffen Division, which has been linked to at least 11 murders worldwide, has also managed to expand its reach thanks to the platform. “It's not just kind of a fluffy ideology we are talking about,” says Hermansson. “It's actual terror propaganda.”
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.