Telegram as a Buttress: How far-right extremists and conspiracy theorists are expanding their infrastructures via Telegram

Authors: Lea Gerster, Richard Kuchta, Dominik Hammer & Christian Schwieter

Published: 24 October 2022

The ISD Germany study on the extreme right-wing use of Telegram serves as a complementary text to the “Escape routes” report. In it, the research team examined links to other platforms, which were shared on the controversial messenger service and were disseminated in the channels of right-wing extremists, right-wing radicals and conspiracy ideologues in the German-speaking world. The main scope of this research was on smaller platforms that do not fall under the deletion obligation of the NetzDG. Links to larger platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter were also analysed, given that the collected data set contained almost twice as many links to these platforms than to those not fully covered by the NetzDG.

For this report, the ISD research team collected 659,110 messages from 238 public channels from the extreme right, radical right, Reichsbürger:innen and conspiracy ideology spectrum between 1 January and 12 September 2021. From these messages, 371,988 links were extracted, leading to 8,252 domains. The ISD Germany researchers examined domains that were shared more than 15 times and identified social networks and platforms. Using this method, the following findings were obtained:

  • The investigated actors from the extreme right-wing and conspiracy ideology spectrum shared a variety of alternative platforms on Telegram, but none of these platforms seem to be of central importance for the extreme right-wing milieu in Germany. Rather, Telegram itself serves as a gathering place for individuals and organisations whose profiles on larger platforms were deleted.
  • Audiovisual platforms such as video and livestreaming sites are particularly popular with right-wing extremists and conspiracy ideologues on Telegram. The most popular websites in this category were set up outside the German-speaking area. However, the observed channels also shared platforms that were set up by German speakers.
  • Only eight percent of all links pointing to the 8,252 target domains in the data set led to an alternative platform that was shared more than 15 times. The most shared domains belong to established platforms, disinformation sites as well as established media houses.
  • Individual “power users” play a central role for linking on the platform. They follow a strategic approach and promote their profiles on a multitude of different platforms. This phenomenon, which was already described in the ISDs previous “Escape Routes” report, can also be found on Telegram. As the example of Attila Hildmann shows, some users build complex networks between different channels and group chats in order to increase their reach.
  • Extremist actors still frequently use platforms that are instructed to quickly delete illegal content under the NetzDG. At 16 per cent, twice as many links in the examined dataset led to established sites than to smaller platforms that operate below the legal deletion and reporting obligation. It seems that despite regulatory efforts on the part of the platforms, there is still massive interest among right-wing extremists and conspiracy ideologues in using established platforms, especially YouTube. Instead of the expected effect (observed in cases of “deplatformed” extremists) of refraining from using established platforms, a different dynamic is discernible here. Extremists change their communication strategy on established platforms and place softer content there in order not to get their accounts deleted. For more radical or extreme content, they refer their followers to alternative platforms such as Telegram.

Lea Gerster is an Analyst at ISD. She focuses on the spread of extremist ideologies, disinformation and conspiracy theories in German and English-speaking countries. Previously, she worked for two years in the field of digital counter-extremism at think tanks and consultancies in London. She is the co-author of the ISD research reports Escape RoutesDetours and Diversions, Crisis and Loss of Control, Disinformation Overdose: A Study of the Crisis of Trust among Vaccine Sceptics and Anti-Vaxxers and The Rise of Antisemitism Online During the Pandemic: A Study of French and German Content.

Richard Kuchta is an Analyst at ISD. His research focuses on elections, online political communication, extremism and disinformation. His work at ISD includes projects researching online extremism in various countries such as Slovakia, the Czech Republic and German-speaking countries. Previously, Richard worked at Globsec‘s Democracy & Resilience programme as a project coordinator, where he was involved in projects on foreign influence and election monitoring. He is co-author of the ISD research report Detours and Diversions.

Dominik Hammer is a Research Manager at ISD, where his activities include analysing right-wing radicalism and right-wing extremism online. His areas of interest include democratic theory, the strengthening of democratic practice and the analysis of antidemocratic movements. Before joining ISD, he worked in university research and teaching, as well as adult education. He is co-author of the ISD research reports Escape Routes, SignpostsDetours and Diversions, and Auf Odysee, as well as the conference report In the Blind Spot.

Christian Schwieter is a Project Manager at ISD Germany, leading the German-language research project on far-right activity on alternative and emerging online platforms. At ISD, Christian also co-led the pilot phase of the Digital Policy Lab, a new intergovernmental working group focused on charting the online policy path forward to prevent and counter disinformation, hate speech and extremism. Previously, Christian worked as a researcher for the Computational Propaganda Project at the Oxford Internet Institute, where he co-authored reports on state-backed information operations relating to the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2019, Christian was the Specialist Adviser on Disinformation Matters for the UK Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Select Committee at the House of Commons. Christian holds an MSc in Social Science of the Internet from the University of Oxford and a BA from Leiden University College The Hague. He is co-author of the ISD research reports Deutschland und der angebliche Klimalockdown, Detours and Diversions, and Auf Odysee, as well as the conference report In the Blind Spot.

Editorial responsibility: Huberta von Voss, Executive Director ISD Germany 

This report was produced as part of the project “Countering radicalisation in right-wing extremist online subcultures” funded by the Federal Ministry of Justice (BMJ). The responsibility for the content lies exclusively with ISD Germany.

“Telegram as a buttress” was first published in German as “Stützpfeiler Telegram. Wie Rechtsextreme und Verschwörungsideolog:innen auf Telegram ihre Infrastruktur ausbauen.” on 17 December 2021 

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In the Blind Spot – How right-wing extremists use alternative platforms for radicalisation

This report provides a summary of the first annual expert conference "Im toten Winkel - Wie Rechtsextreme alternative Online-Plattformen zur Radikalisierung nutzen" (In the blind spot - How right-wing extremists use alternative online platforms for radicalisation), which took place as part of the project "Radikalisierung in rechtsextremen Onlinesubkulturen entgegentreten" (Countering radicalisation in right-wing extremist online subcultures), funded by the German Federal Ministry of Justice (BMJ).