In the past In a few months, Telegram has skyrocketed in popularity, hitting 550 million monthly active users by July 2021, making it the fifth most used messaging app in the world. And as a wave of government-mandated internet interruptions sweeps across the world, the app has been praised for its opposition to censorship and its role in helping protesters from Belarus to Myanmar organize. But Telegram’s libertarian ethos has a darker side, says anti-racism group Hope Not Hate: The app is one of the wildest pits of anti-Semitism you can find on the Internet. And the problem is getting worse every day.
A new report by Hope Not Hate, which focused on the spread of anti-Semitism online and was due to be published in full today, has found that Telegram is first and foremost among the major internet platforms in offering a “safe haven” for anti-Semites and extremists who have been started from other social networks. This includes in particular believers and boilers of QAnon, the anti-Semitism-exaggerated conspiracy theory associated with the storm of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
The report points out that several channels devoted to anti-Semitic conspiracy or outright violent anti-Semitic content have grown dramatically in 2021 — quite unhindered by Telegram’s moderation. One of these, Dismantling the Cabal, which deals with the New World Order conspiracy theory launched in February 2021, has to date gained over 90,000 followers; another, run by an anti-Semitic QAnon advocate, called GhostEzra, has garnered 333,000 support. Hope Not Hate also found that at least 120 telegram groups and channels have shared the racist, anti-Semitic manifesto that the terrorist attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March 2019, killing 51. Telegram has not responded to 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, researcher with Hope Not Hate. In 2019, the app removed more than 43,000 bots and channels linked to the Islamic State terrorist group as part of a Europol operation. Hermansson claims that some of the anti-Semitic content shared on Telegram constitutes counter-terrorism and should be cracked down on accordingly.
Hope Not Hate found that conspiracy theories have generally been burgeoning online since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, and its accompaniments and social distance measures. Periods of uncertainty and isolation tend to give rise to all sorts of anti-establishment and anti-elite narratives, and the early stages of the pandemic were marked by conspiracy 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 set up; almost invariably, this group is coded as Jewish. The fact that online anti-Semitism is re-emerging in a post-covid world flooded with conspiracy theories is therefore ugly not surprising.
QAnon’s case highlights this perfectly. This conspiracy theory maintains that the world is ruled by an elite cable of satanic and pedophile politicians, financiers and Hollywood actors who spend their days chewing children’s blood to stay young — a clear riff on the old anti-Semitic blood libel canard. Although largely American in origin – former President Donald Trump is portrayed as a white knight, and according to a study, one in five people in the United States is a QAnon believer – over time, the QAnon conspiracy theory has expanded its focus to include Covid -19 trutherism, anti-lockdown activists and other right-wing extremist troops, a move that has gained it supporters in many European countries, with Germany at the top of the list.