When extremists are deplatformed—kicked off the likes of Twitter, Facebook, and 4chan—they don’t stay silent. Instead, they turn to apps with minimal standards of decency, such as Gab, and end-to-end encryption, like Telegram. The latter, a Russia-owned messaging app, has taken off among white nationalists in the US since 8chan, a similar service, closed earlier this year. Over the Atlantic, a similar trend is apparent among British far-right groups, who are making the most of Telegram’s freedom of speech policies to espouse the same anti-Islam views Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik put forward in his 2011 manifesto.
There is considerable overlap between Breivik’s views and the British far-right more broadly, as outlined in a September report from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. In his 1,500-page manifesto, Breivik argued that Muslims frequently commit rape; that Islam promotes terrorist violence; and that Muslim immigrants are supplanting European culture, for example by attempting to implement Sharia law. The report finds evidence of all these narratives within far-right groups such as Britain First and the British National Party.
The same ideas are explicitly espoused on extremist British Telegram groups, which have picked up thousands of followers in 2019; they function like WhatsApp groups, but are searchable and have unlimited members, and form the basis of how users engage on Telegram. These groups include Tommy Robinson News, named for, though not started by, a founder of the nationalist English Defense League (EDL), with a whopping 46,600 members. (For context, Milo Yiannopoulos’s Telegram group has less than half, with 20,6000 subscribers). Other groups on the site include Britain First (8,526 members); Anti-Brexit campaigner James Goddard’s group (2,870 members), and The For Britain Movement (2,650 members).
The above post argues that fears about “the great replacement”—a belief that immigrants are pushing out white populations—is justified. Other posts emphasizing immigrant crime or the impact of Muslim populations are below.
While anti-semitism, anti-immigration, and misogyny are prevalent across such groups, Islamaphobia is a particularly common theme. “Anti-muslim prejudice is the lowest common demoninator among far right groups,” says Matthew Feldman, director of Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. Such views were “becoming the norm” when Breivik released his manifesto and murdered 77 people, he adds, but they have “absolutely” become more common over the past few years.
The connection between Breivik and the British far-right isn’t necessarily simply that the former influenced the latter. “If you look at Breivik’s manifesto there was a lot of reference to already far-right groups in the UK like the EDL,” says Cristina Ariza, a research analyst at the Tony Blair Institute. The same is true for other white supremacist terrorists, she said. For example, the Christchurch, New Zealand, killer had “for Rotherham” written on his ammunition, in reference to pedophilic gangs of predominantly Pakistani-origin men who groomed and raped 1,400 children in Rotherham, UK from 1997 to 2013.
The anonymity of the internet contributed to the increasing volume of such views, says Feldman. It’s possible that the security protections of Telegram, originally designed to protect citizens against oppressive governments, could encourage even more vocal Islamophobia. Ariza says she’d expect themes of victimization—the notion that far-right groups are oppressed, also espoused by Breivik—to become more common as such groups are pushed off mainstream messaging sites.
It’s not clear whether or how apps such as Telegram will handle such conversations. As the app was originally designed to protect against censorious government regimes, it protects privacy and freedom of speech above all else. “Telegram can be forced to give up data only if an issue is grave and universal enough to pass the scrutiny of several different legal systems around the world,” states the Telegram FAQ page. “To this day, we have disclosed 0 bytes of user data to third parties, including governments.”
The app has removed groups used by ISIS but, so far, it hasn’t censored racism. Feldman says these conversations appearing on apps such as Telegram are a sign that bans on more mainstream apps are working. Islamophobia is, unfortunately, rampant among the far-right and, for now, these groups are a clear depiction of this racist mindset.
Correction (Nov 18): This article originally said Breivik’s manifesto was 1,500-words, rather than 1,500 pages.