By Charlie Winter
Since Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter in October, there has been much conjecture about how its changes in policy, particularly in relation to the reinstatement of accounts belonging to prominent white supremacists and conspiracy theorists, will make Twitter a new core arena for extreme right wing (ERW) messaging and outreach.
Notably, this conjecture has not been confined to researchers and analysts. Among proponents of ERW-aligned movements online, anything from accelerationists to neo-Nazis, there has been a widespread feeling of optimism in recent months. As far back as August, members of the ERW ecosystem on Telegram were overtly celebrating, writing things like, ‘We the people are the only answer to this. Go Elon! Free speech,’ with others professing that they were ‘going to go on a misgendering spree as soon as that place [Twitter] is free speech [sic].’
ExTrac’s ERW datasets – which we process in real time from discussion boards, groups, and feeds associated with the ERW ecosystem, programmatically stripping everything of personally identifiable information (PII) and other sensitive metadata at the point of ingest – speak to this surge in interest and enthusiasm. However, to date, as shown in Figure 1 below, they only evidence limited engagement with Twitter, engagement that has spiked several times in November but not remained consistently elevated (though this could of course change in weeks to come). Notably, a qualitative review of these networks on Twitter does show that some ERW accounts have been reinstated or created since the change in management. However, Twitter links that are found in ExTrac’s dataset are more often than not links related to posts of interest to the ERW community rather than actors linking out to their digital assets on Twitter.
A Parallel Migration
As this conversation about the new relative hospitability of Twitter to ‘free speech’-advocating extremists has been taking shape, another migration effort was taking place, this one from Telegram to TamTam.
Based on our data on TamTam link-sharing, visualised in Figure 2, the initial bump for this migration effort appears to have been instigated by the administrators of a network of accelerationist assets on Telegram as the platform’s moderation efforts became more aggressive and invasive about a month after the October 2022 attack on a gay bar in Bratislava, Slovakia. This disruptive pressure appears to have prompted a move, in particular on the part of the Terrorgram Collective, to leave Telegram for more amenable pastures.
Enter TamTam, which in November was described by the admin of one key accelerationist group as ‘a clone of Telegram but without the censorship.’ So functional and – back then at least – easy-to-navigate was it that, before long, others were writing that ‘the Great Migration to TamTam has begun. TamTam is a telegram [sic] clone without all of the censorship of telegram [sic].’ To be sure, several major ERW propaganda channel and chat admins had created backups of their Telegram assets on TamTam as early as July 2022, as these were being taken down on a weekly basis by Telegram. But by mid-November, these same admins were promoting TamTam as the future platform for accelerationist networks online – as one proponent of the move wrote, ‘Telegram is for losers […] the real top Gs are on Tamtam [sic]’ – and dozens of new links to TamTam channels and chats had begun circulating across the Terrorgram Collective’s ecosystem.
An Abrupt End?
This ‘Great Migration’ was not set to last, however. In the first week of December 2022, TamTam had caught onto what was happening and started to aggressively disrupt this new ERW network.
As one Spanish accelerationist commentator noted at the time, ‘Tamtam [sic] banned the entire terrorgram network from the platform. I commented [while the migration was happening] that it was not sustainable[.] Some counter-extremism organisation called them crying and they [TamTam] didn’t hesitate for one moment before cleaning the platform.’ The same user went on to suggest that Gab might be an avenue worth exploring in future.
In the weeks since, following the actions taken by TamTam to remove all assets linked to the accelerationist network, even the strongest proponents of this migration experiment have found themselves conceding defeat and setting up shop, once more, on Telegram. Notwithstanding its continued inhospitability, Telegram’s attendant network effects and functionalities mean that it will continue to be an online focus for accelerationist outreach for the time being.
Since the 5 December takedown efforts by TamTam, the Terrorgram Collective and other accelerationist influencers have increasingly been exploring decentralised P2P apps, personal Internet Relay Chats (IRC), or Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP) as alternatives. A popular option being discussed currently is Matrix, which is an E2EE messaging protocol. ERW actors in these ecosystems have already been experimenting with Matrix rooms, though there are some challenges to their efforts, the most salient of which is the fact that most ERW actors do not want to use a public server. This means that at least one member of the community needs to run a homeserver, which itself necessitates that members of the network trust absolutely the person running the homeserver – and trust comes at a premium these days.
Even if a sustainable way to navigate around this trust obstacle is identified, this platform and the broader cluster of technologies into which it falls is not the best option for disseminating propaganda, an activity which requires a relatively high degree of network openness in order to impact. That being said, it may well become a new preferred avenue for secure messaging.
We have seen all this before. Indeed, these dynamics are an almost exact repeat of the bungled Islamic State migration cycle that occurred in the wake of a joint EUROPOL-Telegram Action Day in November 2019, which was geared towards disrupting the Islamic State’s official and unofficial outreach ecosystem at the time.
Then, as now, targeted and sustained disruption of malign communities on Telegram resulted in a frenzied effort to find a new safe space for ideological and/or logistical discussions and content distribution and/or consumption. Then, as now, TamTam was one of the early favourites to replace Telegram on account of its being perceived as ‘a Telegram clone without all the censorship.’ And then, with almost uncanny similarity, as now, that sudden rush of TamTam enthusiasm was short-lived, ending after about 48 hours with a swift and – at the time at least –decisive effort by TamTam to oust the new Islamic State ecosystem. This forced a move back to Telegram, which, although far harder to operate on than before, was seen as the next best alternative at the time.
Platform migration is one of the most critical areas we need to understand to mitigate terrorist use of the internet, whether right-wing or jihadist. This case study, like that of the Islamic State before it, is a great example of how social media and file-sharing platforms have more agency – and opportunities for success – than is often assumed to be the case.
To be sure, Islamic State and ERW networks continue to exist on TamTam, but not on a scale that is comparable to their equivalents elsewhere. This dynamic is a direct function of strategic and targeted efforts to disrupt bad actor migration at the outset of mass activity. It is yet more evidence for the hypothesis that platform switching behaviours are most effective and resilient when they come on the back of ‘slow-and-steady’ efforts to seed communities – efforts that are not typically driven by bulky, community-level displacement from other platforms.
Dr. Charlie Winter is Director of Research at the threat intelligence platform, ExTrac.
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