New Age, New Weapons: How Extremists Are Using Alternative Social Media Platforms
Today, mainstream social media gets a bad rep; some distrust big tech, while others fear governments monitoring online dissent. Seeking greater anonymity and encryption, many have switched to apps like Telegram and Clubhouse, especially in vulnerable regions. Meanwhile, platforms like TikTok have become extremely popular.
This begs the question: how are extremists exploiting these alternative platforms?
Telegram: A One-Stop Shop for Extremists
Telegram is a secure messaging platform that provides end-to-end encryption in private messages. Telegram’s encryption and security features ensures no one, including governments, can read private chatrooms. Naturally, this invites shady figures.
Following its purge from Twitter, ISIS migrated to Telegram. ISIS opened public channels to spread propaganda and recruit, while its members used the private chatrooms to secretly coordinate operations. With no government backdoors, reluctant cooperation from corporate, and ease in replacing deleted channels, Telegram was extremists’ “app of choice.”
After the 2015 Paris attacks, Europol began identifying IS content on Telegram to bring to the company’s attention. This opened a channel of communication which eventually purged IS public channels and terrorist-related user accounts. This crippled ISIS’s presence on Telegram, making it harder to maintain its media and internal communications.
Clubhouse: An Encrypted Platform in Vulnerable Regions
Clubhouse is an invite-only platform where millions verbally discuss sensitive topics – like politics and religion – in chatrooms. Though a young app, its popularity comes from its difficulty to track or censor; for example, recordings of conversations are deleted once the host closes the discussion.
Like in many vulnerable places, Clubhouse is the #1 app in Egypt. Inevitably, the Muslim Brotherhood, an ideologically-driven group, has taken advantage by launching chatrooms on topics like reconciliation with the Egyptian regime and skepticism of rapprochement between Turkey and Egypt. Several have warned that the group could thus exploit Clubhouse to sway Egyptian and Arab public opinion.
TikTok: An Easy Mass-Media Platform
TikTok is the fastest-growing social media network. This mass-entertainment platform allows users to create quick, trendy videos.
ISIS used TikTok as a recruitment tool in 2019, posting videos of corpses being paraded and supportive Muslim women. Appealing to TikTok’s young audience, videos contained popular filters and stickers, while catchy songs were chosen to help posts trend. Although TikTok removed the videos and canceled all accounts responsible, the content was still easily found.
ISIS hasn’t released any videos since, but right-wing extremists today use TikTok. For example, the Boogaloo Bois posted videos showing their firearms or promoting disinformation. TikTok removed the material, but the Boogaloo Bois quickly switched hashtags and accounts, making it harder to track and remove their presence.
What Does This Mean for Extremist Groups?
Reaching out to recruits, spreading a message, and coordinating with members are key elements in growing extremist influence. Extremist groups must target vulnerable recruits with a steady stream of propaganda from stable sources, while internal communications aimed at coordinating action are best done on one platform.
Encrypted hubs help provide [relative] stability. Telegram’s high-level end-to-end encryption initially made it harder to cripple ISIS. Public channels were replaceable, while private messages were uncrackable.
While ISIS is largely purged from Telegram, dozens of other encrypted messaging services exist, including Riot, RocketChat, and Viber. Clubhouse provides verbal encryption that extremists could exploit to sway opinion. Trendy platforms like TikTok provide easy opportunities for extremists to promote their message to vulnerable populations and replace content when removed.
Predicting the future of extremism on social media is difficult, but there are important developments. Although ISIS found difficulty on Telegram, other extremist groups are taking advantage of the app’s encryption. Today, Telegram hosts an exodus of right-wing extremists from other platforms. After the January 6th insurrection, Telegram was America’s 5th most downloaded app, indicating a potential resurgence as extremists’ “app of choice.”
However, though these encrypted platforms create one-stop shops for extremists by incorporating public outreach with internal communications, many may be useless. Less-popular platforms means fewer users to connect with. Additionally, as extremists migrate to different platforms, it thwarts the little stability needed in media and communications.
Implications for US National Security Strategy
Foreign jihadism online has always challenged American interests. Since 2011, Washington’s Global Engagement Center (GEC), formally known as the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, has worked to counter jihadist narratives by reaching out to vulnerable groups. The problem now is the growing difficulty in tracking and reducing extremists’ online presence.
Particularly, much of the online threat to the homeland today comes from right-wing extremists. As an ideologically polarizing topic in American law enforcement and the political community, it has been difficult to build consensus about how to handle these groups. Their access to encrypted platforms and mass media networks has served as a force-multiplier Washington work to address.
To better confront the challenge posed by extremist networks online, America should:
- Maintain a covert intelligence and law enforcement presence and a visible presence on newer platforms like Clubhouse, Telegram, and possibly TikTok.
- Promote a nonpartisan rule of law in law enforcement that treats all extremists, from ISIS to right-wing extremists, as equal threats, and develop the legal mechanisms to deter domestic extremism without infringing on constitutional rights.
- Open channels of communication with these encrypted platforms for future collaboration against extremism.
Featured Image Photo Credit: pingebat