Building on previous research on deplatformed actors on Telegram (Rogers, 2020), this project maps and characterizes the platform’s Dutch-speaking ‘fringe’, which we generally define as the set of actors and groups with ties to Flanders or the Netherlands whose harmful discourse might resist (or be perceived to resist) the moderation efforts of mainstream social media. The focus of our investigation is thereby on a growing and diverse network of channels mined on the basis of a seed of Dutch-speaking conspiracy theorists and proponents of extreme right-wing politics. Combining digital methods and close readings, the project makes an empirical contribution to the international study of potentially harmful online discourse by 1) charting the relationships between right-wing (political) channels and conspiracy theories, 2) documenting the converging narratives that circulate in the network, including anti-progressive discourse, anti-mainstream discourse, anti-government discourse, Covid-19 policy criticism, conspiracy theories such as 'the Great Reset' and Qanon, and 3) drawing attention to appeals to (political) action and violence.
Telegram is a messaging app that enables users to either chat one-on-one or through private groups with several individual users, quite similar to how WhatsApp works. Privacy and security are deemed very important by Telegram, and users who join tend to be looking for a platform that provides them with a sense of control (Rogers, 2020). In addition, Telegram has an extremely loose approach to content moderation compared to other social media and together with the platforms focus on security, this creates a welcoming environment for extreme views. Telegram differs from other messaging apps as they have introduced one-to-many communication via so called channels. These channels, which are the object of the present study, enable users to communicate with large groups of people.At the moment of writing, Telegram is gaining in popularity, particularly as a site for antagonistic discourse that is increasingly often deplatformed from mainstream platforms such as facebook or twitter. Building on previous research on deplatformed actors on Telegram (Rogers, 2020), this project sets out to map and characterize the platform’s Dutch-speaking ‘fringe’, which we generally define as the set of actors and groups with ties to Flanders or the Netherlands whose harmful discourse might resist (or be perceived to resist) the moderation efforts of mainstream social media. The initial focus of our investigation is thereby on Dutch-speaking conspiracy theorists and proponents of extreme right-wing politics.
Our focus on right-wing actors is inspired by recent studies such as Sterkenburg’s ethnographic investigations into the Dutch far right, and Ponsaers’ survey of the rise of far right identitarian movements in Flanders, both of which reveal a highly diverse network of groups and individuals, with wide-ranging historical roots and varying ties to the political mainstream, as well as a very active online presence. Building on investigative journalism, Ponsaers for instance discusses how the Flemish identitarian group ‘Schild and Vrienden’ used Discord groups as an organizational platform and incubator for hateful memes. Similarly, Sterkenburg maps the recruitment and online information sharing practices surrounding the Dutch group ‘studiegenootschap Erkenbrand’. Both studies thereby foreground the potential of the analysis of far-right networks and discourse online as a means of charting the scope, ideas and imaginaries of (fringe) movements and actors. Furthermore, our decision to include conspiracy theorists within the initial scope of the investigation was motivated by the timeframe of the analysis (2020-2021), which coincides with the global coronavirus pandemic, as well as an observed convergence between right-wing discourse and a range of conspiracy theories.
Our mapping of the Dutch-speaking fringe on Telegram is driven by two research questions:
For technical reasons, we limit our initial analysis to open Telegram channels that can be previewed from a browser. As suggested by Julia Ebner (2019), these channels are important repositories of information and ideas, which might in turn be shared in other channels and groups. They therefore make an important resource to analyse.Starting from an expert seed list of Telegram channels pertaining to Dutch-speaking right-wing or conspiracist actors and organizations, we used a custom scraper to expand the seed to 215 channels based on ‘forwarded from’ links in posts. The full textual contents and images of all channels were subsequently scraped, resulting in dataset comprising ca. 370.000 messages.
As follows from the top 30 channels by number of posts shown in Fig. 1, the retrieved channels are diverse in nature, with names recalling Donald Trump and r/The_Donald (e.g. ‘DeDonald_Nieuwsfeed’), QAnon and other conspiracies (e.g. ‘QNederland’, ‘illuminati_ontmaskeren’), patriotic resistance (e.g. ‘Pattriottisch_Verzet’, ‘verzetsblaadje’), nationalism (‘bataafsenieuws’, ‘BataafseMossel’), and redpilling or awakening (e.g. ‘wakkerworden’, ‘wakkeren’).
Fig 1. Overview of top 30 Telegram channels by number of posts
In order to address our first research question, we create a network representation of relations between the scraped channels based on ‘forwarded from’ links in posts. In the network, nodes represent channels, and if a ‘forwarded from’ link exists between a source channel and a target channel, we add a directed edge between both channel nodes.
In order to address our second research question, we designed a set of queries to identify seven thematic subsets in the data (posts) corresponding to salient narratives. To this end, we tokenized the posts, retained tokens with a frequency of over 1000, filtered these for noise and ambiguous terms, and inductively coded them into categories. We used the words for each category as a basis to iteratively design queries for the seven categories. Finally, using among others 4cat and Gephi, we conducted a quali-quantitative analysis of posts in the seven thematic data subsets in order to identify salient narratives, actors, ideologies and links.
Previous research has indicated that a number of fringe actors moved to Telegram after being deplatformed from facebook or twitter. (Rogers, 2020) It can be hypothesized that events such as Donald Trump’s removal from twitter around the time of the January 2021 Capitol riots might have inspired other actors to move to Telegram in response to the platform policies of mainstream social media. In light of these dynamics, we can indeed observe that the network that was derived from our dataset seems to grow exponentially over time. As illustrated in Figure 2 and Figure 3, we can see that more channels were created over the past year and that the number of forwards between channels seems to grow accordingly.
Fig. 2 Message forwards network, ForceAtlas 2, coloured by modularity class, channel node size by number of forwarded messages, June 2020
Fig. 4 Message forwards network, ForceAtlas 2, coloured by modularity class, channel node size by number of forwarded messages, overall
white male,white lives,zwarte piet,neger, negers, negerin, white genocide
non-white,red pill,politiek correct,pride,queer,racia*,racist,rassen*,refugee*,
red pill,politici,politiek correct,propaganda,rt,rutte,vvd,policor
rutte,tribunaal,vrijheid,vvd,world economic forum,wef,the who,de who
Covid-19 conspiracy theories and criticism
gevaccineerd,,hugo,johnson & johnson,lockdown*,*maatregelen,mask*,moderna,mondkapje*,mondkapjes,
vaccin*,virus*,the who,de who
The 'Great Reset'
reset,Schwab,wef,bilderberg,you will own nothing,great
reset,cashless,agenda2030,NWO,nieuwe wereld orde,
world economic forum,wereldorde
Narratives around anti-mainstream sentiment are just as varied. Both the mainstream media and institutions such as universities and think-thanks, but also big (tech) companies are suspect. Science and scientists are mistrusted, especially in relation to the COVID-19 response. The media is said to be pushing an ‘elitist agenda’, ‘woke culture’ or as mentioned before framed as promoting a multicultural society. Telegram users are angry with ‘the mainstream’ as they are being silenced (sometimes real, sometimes imagined) by for example social media-platforms such as Facebook or Twitter. Dutch and Flemish news outlets are casted as ‘lie-machine’, ‘lying press’ (a term evoking the Nazi slur ‘Lügenpresse’) or ‘fake news media’. Racist discourse often merges with anti-mainstream sentiments in that the press is supposedly withholding information about for example migration and migrants. A dominant narrative is that when migrants commit a crime, the media supposedly stays silent as they are promoting a multicultural society. An example of a story in which anti-mainstream sentiment, corona conspiracy and racist discourse merge is that ‘the media’ supposedly made the public think that it was only uneducated migrants refusing vaccinations and not well-educated (white) people. Followers of different channels within our data-set were warned that this is propaganda and that they should not fall for this trap. They should remain sceptical about vaccinations and corona measures even though the media supposedly frames corona sceptics asmigrants who believe in conspiracies.
Illustration of anti-mainstream imagery on Telegram
Within the anti-government narrative we find critique on corona measures and general critique merged with anti-mainstream, anti-progressive and racist discourse. Antisemitism and the bagalalisation of the holocaust is especially prevalent within narratives around anti-government sentiments. Within this cluster the Belgian and Dutch government are compared to organised crime, the mafia or even Nazi’s. Telegram users claim that the government is spying on their citizens and that the government dictates large parts of people's lives. The farmers' protests in the Netherlands were also widely shared. Between 2019 and 2021 Dutch farmers protested different laws and regulations, these protests are characterised by the usage of tractors to block roads and distribution centre’s as well as occupy public spaces. Narratives around anti-government sentiment merge easily with corona-conspiracy since the government is currently implementing rules that greatly affect the way people live and behave. In the image at the left, Prime minister Mark Rutte and minister of Health Hugo de Jonge are compared to nazi’s, the poster says: “Ignore Facts and Fuck the People” implying that they are tricking the people into getting vaccinated. The general story shared within these themes is that the measures in place are exaggerated, unnecessary or even unlawful, thereby criminalizing the government.
Illustration of anti-government imagery on Telegram
As the previous examples show, Coronavirus conspiracies merge with racist, anti-progressive, anti-government and anti-mainstream discourse. The central narrative of the conspiracy entails that individual freedoms are being suppressed with corona measures to prime the people, or ‘sheeple’ for more extensive control, and that this was planned in advance. The pandemic is often referred to as ‘plandemic’ and viewed as orchestrated by ‘globalists’ or (Jewish) elites, again tapping a centuries old conspiracy of supposed Jewish world domination. This fits in Kofta et al’s (2020) theory that antisemitic conspiracy theories often serve as a universal explanation for crises in times of political uncontrollability. According to the coronavirus conspiracy, the establishment does not have to follow corona measures and neither do progressive groups. They use the example of Black Lives Matter protests that were allowed, whereas protests against corona measures were forbidden. Many mention a Nüremburg tribunal in the future where political leaders and virologists would be judged for their crimes against humanity.
.Illustrations of coronavirus conspiracy imagery on Telegram Various Dutchophone channels in our dataset that adopted coronavirus conspiracies also sympathised with the Qanon conspiracy. They use Qanon terminology such as WWG1WGA (Where We Go One, We Go All) and support the narrative that Donald Trump is secretly overthrowing a deep state satanic pedophilic Cabal. The Qanon conspiracy also adapted to a local context, particularly the Dutch context. This is unsurprising given how the Netherlands was in the top European countries where Qanon tweets originated (De Smedt & Rupar, 2020). Supposedly a Dutroux-like scandal, referring to Belgium’s biggest pedophilia scandal in the 90’s, is being covered up by the Dutch government and royalty. This is seen in the image here, which links to videos on the satanic child abuse in the Netherlands. Several Qanon-themed protests were coordinated on the channels. There is anti-progressive narratives in the Dutchophone Qanon conspiracy where the Left is blamed for normalising pedophilia by teaching children about sex at an early age, or the mainstream media is grooming children with a children’s tv-show normalising nudity. The channels make references to politicians and virologists supposedly signaling their pedophilic intentions through hidden messages and symbols. There is also racist discourse in the Qanon conspiracy, for example Jewish schools are guarded against attacks while white schools aren’t protected against the pedophilic cabal, or muslims are named in the same breath as pedophiles as a threat to society. Illustration of Qanon imagery on Telegram
Several channels made warnings against ‘The Great Reset’, a plan suggested by the World Economic Forum, and added conspiracies and interpretations over what this plan entails. According to The Great Reset Conspiracy, the WEF planned the corona pandemic to facilitate its follow-up efforts to turn humans into worker drones in a globalized communist state that is also capitalist, where nobody owns anything and works for the elite. This merger of both anti-communist and anti-capitalist sentiments is symptomatic to the Great Reset Conspiracy, or as Naomi Klein (2020) also called it a Conspiracy Smoothie. The conspiracy claims that corona measures will be transformed into climate measures and enable climate lockdowns, questioning the legitimacy of climate action. The Great Reset plan is also associated with the UN Agenda 2030 on Sustainable Development Goals, the WHO, and all government leaders that have expressed some form of support for those institutions and agendas. There’s also antisemitism in The Great Reset conspiracy. The Great Reset is supposedly run by jews to oppress the ‘goyim’ (a non-jewish person, used derogatory in antisemitic speech).
llustrations of 'Great Reset' imagery on Telegram
In this project we have attempted to map and characterize Telegram’s Dutch-speaking ‘fringe’, a set of actors and groups with ties to Flanders or the Netherlands whose harmful discourse might resist (or be perceived to resist) the moderation efforts of mainstream social media. Combining qualitative and quantitative analyses, our investigation of Telegram channels in particular sheds new light on the relation between right-wing actors and conspiracy-related channels.
First, our analysis has shown that on a structural level, Flemish right-wing actors and groups are less likely to engage with conspiracist channels than their Dutch counterparts. However, on the level of content, it is evident that these groups adhere to shared narratives such as those of resistance against coronavirus measures of the political majority parties. It can thus be concluded that these Flemish actors tend to play into the sentiment of conspiracist channels, but refrain from explicitly associating with them through the forwarding of messages.
Second, our structural analysis based on ‘forwarded from’ links reveals surprisingly little left-wing channels. The exception to this rule are a number of parody channels and channels monitoring left-wing activities, but we had expected to find more left-wing content to be forwarded into right-wing channels with the aim of criticizing this content.
Third, our analysis reveals a convergence of different narratives. Whereas the network shows a clear structure, on the level of content (text and visual) it is much more difficult to detect a clear difference between conspiracy channels or right-wing channels. It can therefore be stated that different narratives seem to merge (Fig 5). We detected the following overlapping narrative strands: racist discourse, anti-progressive discourse, anti-mainstream discourse, anti-government discourse, Covid-19 conspiracy theories and criticism, The 'Great Reset' and Qanon. Narratives within these clusters often merge and overlap. This observation speaks to the hypothesis of the so-called ‘conspiracy singularity’ or ‘conspiracy smoothie’, which proposes that around the time of the covid pandemic, a range of conspiratorial narratives have converged.
Fourth, and particularly alarming, is that we can identify numerous occasions where these narratives are linked to explicit calls to (political) action and violence. An example is a Qanon-type conspiracy that centered on a small town, Bodegraven, which saw demonstrations organised by some Telegram channels in our dataset. Participants gathered on the cemetary to commemorate the children that they claim died from satanic ritualistic abuse. These led to legal action from the town against 3 suspects to take down content that contains these rumors. Since the scraping of the channels was done after this legal action, the main conspiracy channel RedPillJournal was no longer part of the initial dataset. Traces of calls for action in Bodegraven, however, were still found in the data. A more recent example is a demonstration against corona-measures in Rotterdam on 17-07-2021 organised by Police for freedom. The call to demonstrate was shared by different channels in our data-set. Interesting to note here is that this particular demonstration is an example of how the convergence of narratives is not exclusionary to online spaces. Several participants of the demonstration held banners with statements such as “Who will be the new Anne Frank?” or “concentration quarantaine camp”. As we have explained, antisemitism and the bagalalisation of the holocaust are especially prevalent within narratives around anti-government sentiments and corona-conspiracies.
Our mapping of the Dutchophone fringe on Telegram has thus revealed a diverse and growing network of channels that still remains mainly confined mainly to a right-wing sphere. As our investigation has revealed imagery and discourse that are explicitly racist and antisemitic, as well as explicit appeals to violence and action, further research into fringe actors on Telegram is warranted.
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