Extremists turn to encrypted apps after social media crackdowns

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Posted at 5:33 PM, Feb 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-26 18:28:49-05

(WXYZ) — Communication of extreme ideology is getting more difficult to track following the January 6th insurrection on the US Capitol in Washington, and extremists views may be growing as a result.

Social media crackdowns have funneled extremists conversations toward encrypted apps and moderation-free message boards.

Michigan is one of the hotbeds for this kind of communication.

“We have at ground zero for plots to target politicians,” said Anti Defamation League’s Center on Extremism Associate Director Joanna Mendelson.

“What we’re seeing now is extremists who disagree with lockdown measures, with COVID response or with election results, and they’re calling for violent action.”

Much of the rhetoric used to be relegated to platforms like Twitter and Facebook before the social media giants booted thousands of far-right users after January 6th.

Another radical right refuge, Parlor, was also shut down by the site’s host, Amazon.

“De-platforming, it helps to decentralize the extremist voice,” said Mendelson. “However what we have seen time and time again is that as we force extremists content into other, less content-moderated platforms, we are sending them into a virtual ecosystem that is essentially brimming with extremists content. It’s a whack-a-mole game.”

The ecosystems for white supremacists, neo-nazis and far-right militias that Mendelson is referring to are now being found on encrypted apps like Signal and Telegram, where only the people communicating can read the messages, as well as those with permission.

Internet service providers, the app company, the government, or anyone else without permission are shut out.

“We started using Telegram to communicate and start group messages, then Telegram started doing channels,” said Enrique Tarrio, Chairman of the Proud Boys, a far-right organization labeled as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“We’ve kind of created this little ecosystem within Telegram,” said Tarrio.

Telegram has surpassed 500 million users, with 100 million migrating to the app in January alone.

“We have a new breed of extremists that have essentially emerged, who are living in an entire ecosphere of disinformation, lies and conspiracy theories, fertilized by extremist thought leaders,” said Mendelson.

Mendelson acknowledges that recruitment efforts by extremists are shifting into a new gear on these platforms, with particular outreach toward Qanon supporters.

“There is an opportunity to envelop them into the fold, to indoctrinate them, to recruit them, and to meet them on the issues that may resonate with them, said Mendelson.

“Whether or not it's immigration, Whether or not it's the COVID response or whether or not it’s the election of Biden, these are all factors that are common ground, and extremists are strategically plotting in order to bring others into their fold.”

Within the channels on the apps are sub-channels, as well as the ability for peer-to-peer encrypted communications that worry law enforcement, who can not monitor communications without just cause.

“Whenever we see extremists go to spaces in which it is much more under wraps, whether or not it's encrypted channels that makes access a lot more difficult, or the dark web for example, that represents a challenge for law enforcement. Ultimately it's not just about rhetoric, but about mobilization into action,” said Mendelson.

“If you’re not getting access to that content, it basically limits law enforcement access to that information that could safeguard our country.”
Mendelson’s organization provides the just cause for law enforcement. The Anti-Defamation League works as citizen observers inside the channels, looking for and flagging potentially criminal communications.

“We have seen numerous plots throughout this last year alone where law enforcement have successfully mitigated plots and attacks that target our community. So we see that law enforcement are not completely hand-tied to address this, but we rely on the community to flag incidents, flag things that are of concern, to partner with law enforcement so they can be even more effective in their jobs,” said Mendelson.