Some of the Most-Viewed Posts on Telegram Channels Contain Vaccine Misinformation: Study

A new study showed that some of the most-viewed posts on pages for right-wing extremists on the social media app Telegram contained misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.

At least nine out of the 10 posts that were most viewed on the pages, known as channels, had misleading claims about the pharmaceutical companies that created the COVID-19 vaccines or the safety of the vaccines themselves, according to the research from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

Ciaran O'Connor, the study's author, said the far-right extremists are using Telegram to reach more people and expand their following. He believes the people are trying to use fear and anxiety about COVID-19 to gain new followers.

A Telegram channel run by two well-known members of the American far right has 50,000 subscribers and sees about 400,000 views each day. The channel had only 5,000 subscribers in May of 2020, according to Telegram Analytics.

Another channel on Telegram reported that its total number of subscribers increased by 10 times after talking about COVID-19 conspiracy theories. Other posts commonly seen on the app involve conspiracies about where the virus came from or downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic.

"COVID-19 has served as a catalyst for radicalization," O'Connor said. "It allows conspiracy theorists or extremists to create simple narratives, framing it as us versus them, good versus evil."

Protesters, COVID-19, Vaccine
Despite the newly discovered Omicron strain of COVID and health officials urging more people to get vaccinated, many around the world are still resistant to vaccines, mandates and the lockdowns that many countries have imposed after outbreaks. Above, a protesters gather in Times Square in New York City to show their opposition to COVID-19 vaccines on December 5, 2021. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Many of the posts contain hate speech directed at Jews, Asians, women or other groups or violent rhetoric that would be automatically removed from Facebook or Twitter for violating the standards of those sites.

Telegram, based in the United Arab Emirates, has many different kinds of users around the world, but it has become a favorite tool of some on the far right in part because the platform lacks the content moderation of Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

In a statement to the Associated Press, Telegram said it welcomed "the peaceful expression of ideas, including those we do not agree with." The statement said moderators monitor activity and user reports "in order to remove public calls for violence."

Indeed, mixed in with the COVID-19 conspiracy posts are some direct recruitment pitches. For example, a Long Island, New York, chapter of the far-right Proud Boys group posted a link to a news story about a local synagogue and added their message urging followers to join them. "Embrace who you were called to be," read the post, which was accompanied by a swastika.

The researchers found suggestions that far-right groups on Telegram are working together. ISD researchers linked two usernames involved in running one Telegram channel to the two prominent members of the American far right. One was a scheduled speaker at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white supremacist deliberately drove into a crowd of counterdemonstrators, killing one and injuring 35.

The data is especially concerning given a rash of incidents around the world that indicate some extremists are moving from online rhetoric to offline action.

Gavin Yamey, a physician and public health professor at Duke University, has written about the rise of threats against health care workers during the pandemic. He said the harassment is even worse for those who are women, people of color, in a religious minority or LGBTQ.

Yamey, who is Jewish, has received threats and antisemitic messages, including one on Twitter calling for his family' to be "executed." He fears racist conspiracy theories and scapegoating may persist even after the pandemic eases.

"I worry that in some ways the genie is out of the bottle," Yamey said.

The pandemic and the unrest it has caused have been linked to a wave of harassment and attacks on Asian-Americans. In Italy, a far-right opponents of vaccine mandates rampaged through a union headquarters and a hospital. In August in Hawaii, some of those who harassed that state's Jewish lieutenant governor at his home during a vaccine protest brandished fliers with his photo and the word "Jew."

Elsewhere, people have died after taking sham cures, pharmacists have destroyed vaccine vials, and others have damaged 5G telecommunication towers since the pandemic began nearly two years ago.

Events such as the pandemic leave many people feeling anxious and looking for explanations, according to Cynthia Miller-Idriss, director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University, which studies far-right extremism. Conspiracy theories can provide an artificial sense of control, she said.

"COVID-19 has created fertile ground for recruitment because so many people around the world feel unsettled," Miller-Idriss said. "These racist conspiracy theories give people a sense of control, a sense of power over events that make people feel powerless."

Policing extremism online has challenged tech companies that say they must balance protecting free speech with removing hate speech. They also must contend with increasingly sophisticated tactics by groups that have learned to evade platform rules.

Facebook this month announced that it had removed a network of accounts based in Italy and France that had spread conspiracy theories about vaccines and carried out coordinated harassment campaigns against journalists, doctors and public health officials.

The network, called V_V, used real and fake accounts and was overseen by a group of users who coordinated their activities on Telegram in an effort to hide their tracks from Facebook, company investigators found.

"They sought to mass-harass individuals with pro-vaccination views into making their posts private or deleting them, essentially suppressing their voices," said Mike Dvilyanski, head of cyber espionage investigations at Meta, Facebook's parent company.

O'Connor, the ISD researcher, said sites like Telegram will continue to serve as a refuge for extremists as long as they lack the moderation policies of the larger platforms.

"The guardrails that you see on other platforms, they don't exist on Telegram," O'Connor said. "That makes it a very attractive place for extremists."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Vienna COVID-19 Vaccine Protest
New research indicates that far-right extremists and white supremacists are gaining new followers and influence by co-opting conspiracy theories about COVID-19. Above, protesters light flares during a demonstration against measures to battle the coronavirus pandemic in Vienna, Austria, on December 11, 2021. Florian Schroetter/AP Photo