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Telegram battles to vet extremists flocking to its encrypted platform

Monitoring channels, groups and bots for jihadist content is not a simple undertaking as Telegram has more than 400 million users who can easily establish channels with an unlimited number of members, as well as groups which can have up to 200,000 members.

The Simon Wiesenthal Centre, a Jewish human rights group that tracks the growth of terrorism and hate online, noted in a report on Telegram published in July 2020 that the messaging platform had a proactive program that included a joint initiative with Europol in November 2019 aimed at removing
jihadist-related accounts.

“The platform has grown in popularity with far-right users, and waves of suspensions and increased restrictions by mainstream social media platforms have pushed them to embrace alternative platforms,” the centre said.

An activist looks at an Islamic State group marketplace on the encrypted app Telegram in 2016.

An activist looks at an Islamic State group marketplace on the encrypted app Telegram in 2016.Credit:Maya Alleruzzo/AP

The centre said Telegram accounts related to Islamic State were being actively monitored but that there appeared to be no similar wide-ranging initiative to remove right wing extremist accounts. Neo-Nazi groups from Russia, Ukraine and the United States are also among those using Telegram to distribute propaganda.

“While some channels and groups promoting hateful content may go quiet or lose their administrators, the content can remain dormant, online and accessible, including links and downloads,” the centre said.

There are also Telegram channels that are a hotbed for conspiracy theorists, including suggestions coronavirus is a hoax, 5G is a danger to humankind and “sovereign citizen” ideology, which in its most crude form advocates that people can choose the laws with which they comply.

As well as Telegram, Twitter substitutes such as Parler and Gab, and the YouTube substitute known as BitChute, have become home to extreme white nationalist or white supremacist commentators, because those platforms have a different attitude towards moderation.

Security agencies such as the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation have warned about the rise of right-wing extremism in recent years. Department of Home Affairs Secretary Michael Pezzullo told Senate sstimates last month the ability of criminal groups or individuals to disappear without a trace online was of great concern.

He said the number of encrypted platforms made it challenging to track suspects engaged in criminal activity online and the difficulty was compounded by the fact criminals were able to evade law enforcement by using multiple platforms and being anonymous.

“The adversary will simply be moving from platform to platform, server to server, network to network, and that’s the particularly pernicious aspect of anonymisation,” Mr Pezzullo said.

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