White supremacists and neo-Nazis are toning down their usual vicious rhetoric on Telegram and are trying to present a softer side of their violent racism, by avoiding explicit imagery and terminology and encouraging followers to change their avatars and biographies. They are also adopting the language, ideas, grievances, causes, and conspiracies of antigovernment militant groups, rank-and-file supporters of former president Donald Trump, and people who subscribe to the QAnon mass delusion.
The gambit, say experts who monitor far-right extremism, is an attempt to be more palatable to a broader audience and then lure them into their hateful ideologies, grow their membership, and ultimately radicalize more people.
And it looks as though it may be working, according to a BuzzFeed News review of 22 Telegram channels and chats with a combined tens of thousands of followers. Adherents of the Make America Great Again doctrine and the “Stop the Steal” conspiracy, among other like-minded movements, have increasingly shared and commented on content from organizations like the Patriot Front and the National Justice Party, and channels like the Hammer — each of which promotes violence and espouses explicit neo-Nazi ideology.
Much of that content included hateful language and antisemitic tropes thinly masked in memes and seemingly jokey commentary; some featured quotes from white supremacist figures like George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party, without any context about them. In a few cases, the posts called for Americans to overthrow the federal government.
The overlap in content underscores what many experts characterize as a growing problem: a new kind of extremist, one who resembles an “everyday” American.
Roughly 90% of people who have joined extremist militant groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers and were arrested for storming the US Capitol on Jan. 6 had no obvious ties to violent far-right groups, according to research by the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats and the George Washington University Program on Extremism.
“They’ve been veering very quickly into some of the most intense stuff out there, stuff [that’s been circulating] on hardcore neo-Nazi groups for years,” Jared Holt, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, said of Trump supporters. He told BuzzFeed News that he has watched the cross-pollination of those groups with alarm but he has not been surprised by it. On Telegram, he added, “really hardcore extremists have the home-field advantage.”
Telegram has long been a haven for violent neo-Nazis and white supremacists. With the app’s public channels, secure chats, file-sharing options, lax moderation, and relative anonymity, fervent racists have found it to be a powerful tool to communicate, organize, and recruit. In doing those things, they’ve used slurs to describe ethnic minority groups, shared images of violence against those them, and even called for mass violence to hasten the collapse of society.
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Mollie Saltskog, a senior intelligence analyst at the Soufan Group, said members of violent far-right extremist groups are generally more savvy Telegram users than Trump supporters and QAnon followers, most of whom only migrated to the app after the former president and other top right-wing figures were kicked from mainstream social networking platforms.
She said the new recruitment strategy of white supremacists and neo-Nazis started taking shape on Telegram almost immediately after Jan. 6 and gained steam after Facebook and Twitter banned Trump and his supporters from their platforms, and Parler went offline. On Jan. 12, Telegram founder Pavel Durov announced there had been a massive influx of new users on his platform.
Saltskog has documented countless examples of organizations and movements that preach violence “infiltrating” or “raiding” pro-Trump groups and “sharing their group handles and ordering followers to recruit them.” She said that extremists had distributed a “playbook” across groups that explained ways to “red-pill” more credulous people (a term used to describe converting someone). One suggested tactic, she added, was changing focus to address more mainstream conspiracies.
BuzzFeed News also found evidence of this. Before Jan. 6, one white supremacist group spent much of its time posting racist memes; in recent weeks, it changed tack to spread disinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines.
Another began removing subscribers who refused to abide by new rules, which stated that members must avoid references to Nazism and change their avatars from Nazi symbols (like photos of Hitler or SS bolts) to more innocuous images. Some channels and users opted for avatars of an American flag and other patriotic symbols that resembled those found in pro-Trump groups.
But whether the online cross-pollination and collaboration will turn into real-world action like that seen during the Capitol attack is unclear.
Posts promoting “white lives matter” rallies on April 11 appeared in nearly every Trump- and QAnon-related channel on Telegram in late March and earlier this month. These posts originated in extremist groups. The advertisements for the rallies had many of the elements of classic Nazi propaganda. One popular ad showed a white, blonde-haired, and blue-eyed couple loom commandingly over a towering city skyline. An ominous warning that the white race, which had built such cities, faces extinction. In big white block letters, it reads, “WHITE LIVES MATTER.” The post calls for white Americans in cities across the country to flood the streets in simultaneous rallies.
While the rallies were largely a bust, their promotion across explicitly white supremacist Telegram channels and a wide array of pro-Trump ones underscores the relative success the former has had in its new recruitment drive.
The extremist groups behind the “white lives matter” rallies aren’t treating them as a defeat. They are using the flop and the fact that they were outnumbered by antifascist activists to bolster their argument that white lives are under attack. New “white lives matter” rallies are being organized for next month.
The admins in various channels that are promoting the rallies are again reminding users to soften their rhetoric and hide any overt symbols of white supremacy and Nazism in order to attract the widest audience possible. Some, though, didn’t understand or ignored the request.
“Hope this one’s even bigger!” wrote a user whose handle ended with “1488” — a numeric symbol that has been adopted by white supremacists.
One user, who had an innocuous avatar but a bio that said they supported “public executions of politicians,” responded, “Hail!”