With many social networks suddenly reevaluating their policies in light of recent political violence in the U.S., the popular messaging app Telegram has begun chipping away at an organized network of neo-Nazi and white supremacist accounts flourishing on the platform.
Telegram confirmed to TechCrunch that it has removed dozens of channels over the course of the last day, citing concerns that the accounts were inciting violence.
"Our Terms of Service expressly forbid public calls to violence," Telegram spokesperson Mike Ravdonikas told TechCrunch. "...In the past 24 hours we have blocked dozens of public channels that published calls to violence for thousands of subscribers."
Asked if those takedowns relate to last week's violent siege of the U.S. Capitol, Ravdonikas said that Telegram will "examine all incoming reports" and that the company is "monitoring the current situation closely."
The company confirmed that a number of accounts TechCrunch had previously observed promoting white supremacy, Nazi iconography and other forms of far-right extremism were part of the new enforcement action, which is still expanding. Some of the blocked channels were still viewable on Telegram's web client Wednesday.
One of those now-removed groups bemoaned Telegram's bans Tuesday in a post displaying a Nazi flag and the warning "you can't kill an idea." Prior to being taken down, that channel boasted more than 10,000 followers.
Many extremist channels began publicizing backup accounts Tuesday, pointing subscribers to dozens of other groups where they could continue to gather. Other sympathetic channels chronicled the bans in real-time, posting screenshots documenting violations of Telegram's terms of service.
The cluster of far-right accounts Telegram closed were largely not focused on mainstream U.S. politics or pro-Trump conspiracies. Some of the channels even spoke derisively of QAnon's outlandish beliefs, dismissing them as a distraction. Many of the channels openly advocated for racial purity through strategic tactics, some gleaned through guides to guerrilla warfare and other texts admins provided for users through Telegram's hosted files feature. One account advertised itself as "The Neo-Nazi Accelerationists your girlfriend told you not to worry about."
Telegram's new batch of takedowns appears to be connected to an effort by self-described anti-fascist and activist Gwen Snyder, who marshaled Twitter users in a "mass-reporting campaign" following last week's violent invasion of the U.S. Capitol.
"For years, we've been tracking these Nazi Terrorgram channels and reporting horrendous, explicit calls to racist violence and insurrection, and Telegram did nothing," Snyder told TechCrunch, noting that the new wave of reporting sought to shame the company into action.
"It worked, and Telegram is finally dismantling the network of Nazi channels that have spent months and years overtly attempting to incite just the sort of terror we saw in D.C."
Many extremist Telegram channels blamed Snyder for the takedowns, leading to an aggressive doxxing campaign that is now circulating her home address. On one channel calling for her death, an image depicts Snyder's face with a bloody hole in its forehead. Another image includes an address, screenshots of her Twitter posts and the text "You know what to do."
Snyder says she heard pounding on her door Tuesday night. "My address is all over those channels with people saying I should be shot and raped for this, and they only have to convince one person."
With President Trump suspended from most major platforms and restrictions tightening on pro-Trump conspiracies like QAnon and the Stop the Steal movement, social media users have fled in droves to platforms that remain willing to incubate extremism.
Prominent among those is Parler, a social network hailed by many pro-Trump figures as a politically friendly alternative to mainstream social media. But with Parler offline after Amazon suspended the account's web hosting services and Apple and Google booted it from their respective app stores, some users flocked to more private options where violent extremism continues to flourish, including Telegram.
Apple and Google did not respond to questions about Telegram's standing and if those companies have issued the messaging app any warnings in the last week.
Telegram saw an explosion in growth this month, with 25 million new users signing up within 72 hours. While the timing overlaps with some U.S. social media users denouncing mainstream social platforms, the influx stemmed from viral misinformation about changes to WhatsApp's data sharing policies with Facebook, which is already notorious for privacy failings.
"People no longer want to exchange their privacy for free services," Telegram founder Pavel Durov said in a post to his Telegram channel Tuesday. "They no longer want to be held hostage by tech monopolies that seem to think they can get away with anything as long as their apps have a critical mass of users."