Echo Chambers of the Far-Right are still ALIVE

Finding online far-right community is easier than you may think, even after tech companies imposed content restrictions and account suspensions.

The Biden Administration has ordered intelligence agencies to conduct a comprehensive threat assessment on Domestics Violent Extremism.

Let us look at how one can carry out simple online research to discover far-right narratives and understand the extent of their reach.

How the Far-Right is leveraging technology

Active on Niche Social Apps

The New York Times cited Gab and Parler as social apps used by the far-right to organize and recruit for pro-Trump movements to retake Capitol building.

Funding Through Bitcoin Donations

Yahoo News and Chainalysis gathered evidences that alt-right groups and personalities involved in the Capitol Riot had received over $500K in Bitcoin one month prior².

On December 8, 2020, a donor sent 28.15 BTC — worth approximately $522,000 at the time of transfer — to 22 separate addresses in a single transaction. Many of those addresses belong to far-right activists and internet personalities.

Intervention from Tech Giants

Tech companies have taken actions to block the distributions of Parler: the app was removed from Google Play Store and Apple App Store, and servers were shut down by Amazon Web Services³.

Social networks also began their cracked down on accounts spreading conspiracy theories and hate speeches: Twitter suspended 70,000 accounts linked to QAnon⁴.

But far-right channels are still thriving on non-regulated messaging apps such as Telegram and it doesn’t take much effort to find them…

Online Research on Far-Right Activities

Bitcoin Transactions

Since we touched on Bitcoin earlier, let’s take a look at a great resource from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a nonprofit legal advocacy organization that monitors hate groups and other extremists.

According to white nationalist Richard Spencer, Bitcoin is the “currency of the alt-right.” The decentralized, peer-to-peer, crypto-currency has obvious appeal to hate group leaders and other influential extremists: no company and no government can intervene to stop the donations from flowing.

Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)

In this example, we will pick Identity Evropa, also known as the American Identity Movement, which is identified as a white supremacist organization by the Anti-Defamation League and is designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group.

A search of the highlighted Identity Evropa’s Bitcoin address on a Blockchain Explorer will yield all transactions for the address. Looking at the two most recent OUT (red) transactions, we know that Identity Evropa had sent Bitcoin to the recipient address [1PYcVEn] on two occasions: 0.007 BTC on 2020–07–25 and 1.024 BTC on 2019–08–13

An online search of this recipient address [1PYcVEn] would uncover that it belongs to Patrick Casey, key figure of the Groyper, which was reported to have members participating in the Capitol Riot.

Also among the Capitol rioters were members of Groyper Army, a loose network of white nationalists

— Associated Press ⁵

Patrick Casey has called for donation to this bitcoin address [1PYcVEn] on every episode of his ‘Restoring Order’ podcast.

Hence, just from open-source online research, we are able to uncover the relationship between two alt-right groups: Identity Evropa has donated Bitcoin to Patrick Casey’s podcast.

Telegram Channels

Earlier on, we saw that far-right groups are active on niche apps (e.g. Parler) and Tech Giants are playing their part to limit the accessibility to these far-right narratives. However, far-right communities are prevalent on Telegram and they are easily assessible.

The following screenshot shows the open Telegram channel of Patrick Casey. From the chat content, we can see that their Telegram followers are growing rapidly, which may be due to the restricted access to their typical platforms (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Parler).

From the top most chat bubble, we can see that Patrick Casey has forwarded a message from Nick Fuentes, his co-leader at Groypers. Nick Fuentes was present outside the Capitol as stated in the Chainalysis report.

Because of Telegram’s feature of displaying the original channel of the forwarded message, it is very convenient for a user to click into the original channel, and be exposed to more channels of similar narratives.

The bottom screenshot shows another channel, American Renaissance, forwarding message from Patrick Casey. The same Bitcoin address [1PYcVEn] was used for the support of ‘multiple lawsuits against various Antifa individuals and organizations’.

Echo Chambers in Telegram

Using an online tool, TGStat, we can view channels that were quoted by a particular channel. For example, the screenshot below is the Telegram channel statistics for American Identity Movement (AIM_America), also known as Identity Evropa mentioned earlier on. The list under ‘Channels quoted by AIM_America’, are channels with messages that were forwarded. Unsurprisingly, most of these channels are also spreading far-right narratives. These channels are easily accessible to viewers of AIM_America.

A look at the Telegram channel statistics of Nick Fuentes confirmed that traction is growing. Subscriber and view count increased rapidly during the week of the Capitol Storming.

By starting from one far-right Telegram channel and iterating through forwarded messages, one could easily be exposed to many more Telegram channels of similar content. This forms an echo chamber.

An echo chamber refers to situations in which beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a closed system and insulated from rebuttal. By participating in an echo chamber, people are able to seek out information that reinforces their existing views without encountering opposing views, potentially resulting in an unintended exercise in confirmation bias. Echo chambers may increase social and political polarization and extremism⁶.

Below are some examples of Telegram channels that were forwarding messages from one another, spreading and reinforcing similar narratives.

From the trend graph on subscribers count, we can see that all these channels are still active and growing rapidly.

It is also not uncommon to find multiple Telegram channels, each organized to serve a specific group within the community. Below are different Telegram channels for Proud Boys. Profile information often contains links to other social media accounts, or provide other contact information.

Below is a closer look at how the Telegram channel of ProudBoysUncensored has grown. Subscribers count began to increase after the Capitol Storming and soared after the implementation of intervention measures from other Tech Giants.

Concluding Statement

With the current focus on Domestic Violent Extremism, open source research using online tools can help to map out the landscape of far-right activities, from Bitcoin transactions to the proliferation of narratives on Telegram.

Even with efforts from tech companies to stifle accessibility to far-right content, far-right echo chambers in Telegram are still very active and prevalent.

References

[1] The New York Times. The storming of Capitol Hill was organized on social media. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/06/us/politics/protesters-storm-capitol-hill-building.html

[2] Yahoo News. Exclusive: Large bitcoin payments to right-wing activists a month before Capitol riot linked to foreign account. https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/exclusive-large-bitcoin-payments-to-right-wing-activists-a-month-before-capitol-riot-linked-to-foreign-account/ar-BB1cKWBc

[3] TechRadar. Parler ‘may never return’ after AWS shutdown. https://www.techradar.com/news/social-media-platform-parler-may-never-return-after-aws-shutdown

[4] BBC News. Twitter suspends 70,000 accounts linked to QAnon. https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-55638558

[5] Associated Press. Years of white supremacy threats culminated in Capitol riots. https://apnews.com/article/white-supremacy-threats-capitol-riots-2d4ba4d1a3d55197489d773b3e0b0f32

[6] Wikipedia. Echo chamber (media). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Echo_chamber_(media)