Last week the Parler social network went back online, after several weeks of being offline. Its return got me thinking more about what the ideal hate platform is. I think there are two essential elements: the ability to recruit new followers to hate groups, and the ability to amplify their message. The two are related: you ideally need both. Parler, for all the talk about its hate-mongering, really isn’t the right technical solution, and I will explain why Telegram has succeeded.
This blog post comes out of email discussions that I have had with Megan Squire who studies these groups for a living as a security researcher and CS professor. She gave me the idea when we were discussing this report from the Southern Poverty Law Center on how Telegram has changed the nature of hate speech. It is a chilling document that tracks the rise of these groups over the past year. But the SPLC isn’t the only one paying attention: numerous other computer science researchers have tracked the explosive growth in these pro-hate groups since the Capitol January riots and other seminal events in the hate landscape.
Telegram’s rise in numbers doesn’t tell the complete story. Telegram has crafted a more complete social platform for distributing hate speech and recruiting new followers. Certainly, Facebook still has the largest user base, but their tech hate stack (if you want to give it a name) is nowhere near as well developed as Telegram’s, and Parler’s is a distant third. Compare the three networks below in terms of both amplification and recruitment elements:
|Type of service||Microblog||Social network||Messaging+|
|Coherent and transparent reporting process for hate speech||No||Mostly and improving||No|
|Support email inbox||No||Yes||No|
|Content moderation team||It depends||Yes||It depends (see below)|
|Encrypted messaging||No||Separate app||Built-in|
|Corporate HQ location||USA (for now)||USA||Dubai|
|Growth in English-speaking hate group followers||Unknown||Unknown||Huge growth (SPLC report)|
|Group cloud-based file storage||No||No||< 2 GB|
|Group-based sticker sets||No||No||Yes|
|Bot infrastructure and in-group payment processing||No||No||Yes|
“Telegram is absolutely the platform of choice right now for the harder-edged groups. This is for technical reasons as well as access/moderation reasons,” says Squire. You can see the dichotomy in the table above: most of the moderation features that are (finally) part of Facebook are nowhere to be found or are implemented poorly on Telegram, and Parler is pretty much a no-show. Telegram’s file-sharing feature, for example, “allows hate groups to store and quickly disseminate e-books, podcasts, instruction manuals, and videos in easy-to-use propaganda libraries.” I have put links in the chart above to descriptions on why the bot infrastructure and sticker creation features are so useful to these hate groups.
What about moderating content? Here we have conflicting information. I labeled the boxes for Parler and Telegram as “it depends.” Telegram has said that their users do content moderation. In their FAQ they claim to have a team of moderators. For Parler, their community guidelines document says in one place that they don’t moderate or remove content, and in another that they do. My guess is that they both do very little moderation.
The picture for Parler is pretty bleak. If they do succeed in keeping their site up and running (which isn’t a foregone conclusion), they have almost none of the elements that I call out for Facebook and Telegram. Using the Twitter micro-blogging model doesn’t make them very effective at amplification of their messages (at least, not until some of their personalities can bring over huge crowds of followers) or in recruitment, especially now that their mobile apps have been neutered.
There are two technical items that are both useful for Telegram: its encrypted messaging feature and the difference between its mobile app and web interfaces. Much has been written about the messaging features between the different social networks (including my own blog post for Avast here). But Telegram does a better job both at protecting its users’ privacy (than Facebook Messenger) and has much better integration into its main social network code.
The second item is how content can be viewed by Telegram users. To get approval for its app on the iTunes and Google Play app stores, Telegram has put in place self-censorship “flags” so that mobile users can’t view the most heinous posts. But all of this content is easily viewed in a web browser. Parler could choose to go this route, if they can get their site consistently running.
As you can see, defining the tech hate stack isn’t a simple process, and evolving as hate groups figure out how to attract viewership.
N.B.: If you want to read more blogs about the intersection with tech and hate, there is this post where I examine the evolution of holocaust deniers and this post on fighting online disinformation and hate speech.