Investigating how British right-wing groups spread hatred on Russian social media platforms
Can open-source investigation techniques reveal how British right-wing groups use emerging Russian social media platforms like Telegram (part 1) and VK (part 2) to spread hatred after the murder of George Floyd?
Right-wing British nationalists and racists followers are known to excel at online activism. First, on western social media platforms like Facebook where groups like Britain First built a considerable following. Now they moved elsewhere. This post explores how investigative journalists can keep tabs on British right-wing groups and their followers on Telegram (part 1) and VK (part 2, followup post).
What is Britain First?
A group that explores alternatives after getting banned elsewhere for violating terms and conditions, is Britain First. It’s a British extremist right-wing formation that posted ‘ repeatedly content designed to incite animosity and hatred against minority groups’ on Facebook. There, it attracted thousands of followers.
Only after delays, the tech giant decided to take the page down in 2018. Britain First stubbornly reopened another page in 2019 and then got banned again, together with multiple other groups. This time for good.
Sadiq Khan, mayor of London called Britain First a ‘vile and hate-fuelled group’. In 2019, it was fined £44,200 by the Electoral Commission. In February of this year its group leader, Paul Golding was charged with a terror offense and convicted under terrorism law in May.
In 2019, rightwing leaders looked for alternative social media platforms. They found them in Telegram and VK
This May, YouTube banned Golding’s media channels. Britain First voiced dismay to their followers. This time not on western social media Facebook or Twitter. They switched to Russian media platforms Telegram and VK. By the time of the George Floyd murder, the group was up and running, attracting thousands of new followers who spread hateful messages.
There is also evidence that the two platforms support each other (Britain First on Telegram promotes its VK page and so on).
From the many disturbing posts I viewed, I can say there is little doubt that these two services, evenly, became the go-to mouthpieces for these British groups and their vast landscape of racist following.
In general, the theme isn't new. In the US, Telegram became the preferred service for right-wing nationalists already last year. However, it is news for right-wing nationalist groups in Britain.
Britain First urges loyalists to go on Telegram when they sign up for a newsletter or volunteering opportunity (see below the signup confirmation email). Telegram is often cited as being relatively secure (although, some experts say there can be gaps). It promises some extent of anonymity. There is also room for lots of members. In 2019, Telegram expanded group limits to 200,000 members.
Why VK? Golding (or whoever runs the page) wrote on the Telegram wall: “…[VK is] the perfect home for patriots…does NOT ban anyone for posting patriotic content”.
Why Telegram: In January, the Anti-Defamation League, called Telegram a ‘safe-haven’. It was used to organize gun rallies in Virginia. Groups see the potential in the fact that content is rarely banned. Brenton Tarrant, who committed the Christchurch massacre, and Stephan Balliet, the shooter in Halle, were both allowed to post their disturbing videos.
The tragic event of the murder of the innocent George Floyd and those that followed, didn’t pass unnoticed among racists and right-wing nationalist group leaders.
Telegram clearly helped to motivate more hatred and provocation among right-wing extremist group leaders and their followers. The analysis below confirms a glut of new following on these platforms.
Racist following surges after Floyds murder and peaceful BlackLivesMatter protests
Within only a few days in June, Britain First Telegram’s page experienced a considerable surge in the number of followers. From around 8,000 on June 3 to nearly 12,000 on June 7. It’s a bit surprising because other similar accounts, like the one by Tommy Robinson, remained relatively stable over May and June.
It is yet to be confirmed that these followers are ‘real’ (and not fake followers, like bot accounts). But the surge seems feasible, at least theoretically. There was a glut of hateful posts regarding peaceful protesters. Repeated posts on Britain First “White Lives Matter” (a distasteful campaign to provoke peaceful protesters) gained likes on Telegram but also on VK.
Posts by the account holder (presumably Golding) reached 2,500 people via an average post, and around 23,400 people every day. With 17 posts per day, there is enough content to stimulate hateful debate among followers. Reviewing many posts, the most concerning part is the comments these posts receive, many outright hate-fuelling.
On the single day of June 8, the Telegram group reached 50,000 views.
Britain First’s Telegram account uses a variety of means to spread its messages. Since inception, there are 3,927 images, 1,671 videos, 2,373 links, and even several voice messages.
The best way to keep tabs on Britain First and other racist and nationalist groups is Telegram Analytics. We will use it to analyze relationships between right-wing accounts.
First, we want to understand how Britain First fits into the wider landscape, how it connects to other racist/rightwing nationalist Telegram channels. On Telegram Analytics we check ‘Forwards & channel mentions’ and ‘Channels quoted by @BritainFirst’. Since June 6 we get the following connections (see graphic below).
What we see here is a web of connections. Noteworthy links include the one to Jack Dawkins. Dawkins did not get banned on Twitter (so far) and remains very vocal there. He was spotted to support messages by Britain First on various occasions. It boosted his own following.
Followers count by Dawkins account is similar to Britain First. Both surged drastically (by a third) since June 1st.
Tommy Robinson’s Telegram account, with 36,000 followers, lost some over the course since last October when it hit the 50k mark. Since then, there is a falling trend (but slowing now). It’s worth to put Robinson’s ‘Tommy Robinson News’ account in perspective with that of Britain First. The two accounts are tightly linked. Golding and Robinson support each other.
Robinson’s account emerged on Telegram on April 7, last year. Britain First surfaced on April 26. Golding and Robinson appear to work closely together (they promote mutual interviews and mention each other on Telegram and VK).
Could it be that Britain First feeds off the (stronger) presence of Robinson’s Telegram account? Let’s check how they interlink. There are some accounts — ‘Mark’, ‘MILO’, Dawkins account, and ‘The Little Veteran’ — that support both groups.
How it’s done: We use WebScraper, a browser plugin that allows us to access Telegram Analytics stats. It’s good when we don't have time to write a full-on scraping script (it’s not worth it, at this stage). With various software products, you can build network plots (you could use neo4j or Flourish).
Hatred on Telegram
With recent events in the US and elsewhere, Britain First’s posts involve provoking messages on protesters removing statues (the removal of the Robert Milligan statue, a slave trader, and that of Edward Colston and others is mentioned). Many of the comments are hate-filled and comments are outright discussing. But the platform gives right-wing nationalists a way to blow off steam.
The dangerous part comes when posts to followers have a clear message to act. One video posts on Telegram read “The new England, you angry yet?…..”
Posts that incite violence are concerning. It is one good reason Journalists and possibly law enforcement services might want to carefully observe what’s being posted on Telegram.
Other racist British groups on Telegram
Intervention by the government?
As we have seen, Telegram offers the latest breed of British right-wing actors means to regroup and connect. Is Telegram, with its 400 million monthly active users and with at least 1.5 million new users signing up every day, aware of the misuse and spreading of hate-filled content?
It’s a good question that warrants further investigation (if you want to team up, reach out!!!).
So far, the founders of Telegram had little to nothing to add to the conversation. As pressure increases, we might see action. There is some hope. Telegram became active in the past. Durov said in 2015 that the company started blocking public channels used by the terrorist group ISIS. But in the US the problem of white supremacists on the platform is known for a good while now with no action so far.
Operators of Telegram and other critical onlookers should keep in mind the consequences of banning groups like Britain First on Telegram. One concern is that they might just continue somewhere else (a problem if they do take it offline and go straight to violence).
For Telegram, banning would mean it would jeopardize an edge. That is, its ability to offer a place for people who fear censorship, including human rights activists. But by now, it became painfully obvious that racist groups use it so extensively. A responsible company would want to act sooner than later (especially if it wants to raise investments in western markets).
It warrants saying that Durov’s Telegram app got banned in Russian. It didn't stop Russian actors to promote Covid-19 disinformation on the service (at least that’s what people claim. I have not evidence for this at this stage).
In Europe, the company was listed — at least until recently. Officially, Telegram had its legal domicile in London, UK. But by the end of 2019 and early this year, its UK holding entity as well as its LLP and INC., have all been dissolved. Where did they go?
Another question is: Will the UK government impose pressure on Telegram to remove racists nationalist content in the wake of George Floyd and domestic and international protests? With the current leadership, this seems rather unlikely.
Nonetheless, it’s a question that requires careful debate. If these groups are being kicked off the services, it will make it harder, not easier to monitor right-wing British actors. At present, these services make it possible to hold them accountable for what they do and say.
Investigative magazine MotherJones ran an article in January stating that the company ‘stood idle as extremist groups have taken advantage of their inaction to communicate, organize, recruit, and rally allies and members on Telegram’. So far, Telegram has not found a way to meaningfully address its right-wing extremist problem.
Next stop: Investigating VK (part 2)
British right-wing nationalist group Britain First is now extensively active on VK. VK or VKontakte is often dubbed as the Russian Facebook. It’s less concerned with banning controversial content. The leader of Britain First, Golding discovered it as a powerful tool to re-unite racists and nationalists and to promote himself (he has now over 4k followers).
VK, like Telegram, refuses to delete hateful comments. One recent shocking example is a post showing a woman, allegedly next to the Churchill monument (below, disguised to protect her privacy). Commentators posted the image so others could find and ostensibly punish her. The hateful comment reads: “…make her famous”. There is no doubt this and other posts by Britain First helped to incite violence against minorities.
In the next post we will explore how to track and analyze Britain First’s presence on VK. We will also look at how the VK accounts link to other right-wing accounts and we will further explore the strange connection to Russian actors. Also, we will look into evidence of VK getting tracking data on visits to the Britain First website. This and more will be explored in the upcoming second part of this theme. Stay tuned.