White supremacists use social media to organize racist attacks amid unrest

Telegram app’s origins were in Russia.

More than 200 white supremacist groups with thousands of members have been using an encrypted messaging app to plot violence against minorities and Black Lives Matter throughout national protests over George Floyd's death, according to an exclusive report by CNN.

The groups have migrated to the Telegram app because its terms of service are not as strict as other social media platforms, allowing users to openly threaten violence and share videos of crimes, hate speech, praise for mass killers, and perhaps most disturbingly, post manuals about how to manufacture 3D guns, the network reported.

A ‘Telegram’ from Russia

Telegram has Russian origins but is now based in Dubai.

The company also has tentacles in Germany, where Telegram’s founders — Nikolai and Pavel Durov — went after leaving the former Soviet Union. The brothers left for higher ground because their first social network venture was taken over by Mail.ru Group, Russia’s foremost internet company.

Mail.ru also owns the popular social network VKontakte, which is Russia’s version of Facebook.

One of the co-founders of Mail.ru — the Russian-American billionaire and entrepreneur Yuri Milner — has direct business ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law, according to a 2017 a joint investigation, by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, The New York Times, the BBC and other media partners.

Telegram has been around for about seven years and has 400 million active monthly users, according to Tech Crunch. That compares to 2.6 billion active monthly Facebook users. The application offers cloud-based instant messaging for users to send messages or exchange photos, audio and video.

Extremism in plain sight

Some of the video footage shared by the supremacist groups shows followers harassing and threatening protesters, as well as destroying the memorials and ephemera of Black Lives Matter and replacing them with  insignia supporting white supremacy.

A video uploaded to Telegram on June 5 showed a carload of white supremacists driving through Knoxville, Tennessee, harassing protesters at a Black Lives Matter rally, according to CNN. "You wanna die? Come on in. 9mm with your name on it," one of the men in the car shouted to demonstrators.

Some of the names of the groups include “Only White Lives Matter,” “The Fascist Group Esoteric Anti Root Collective,” “The Rise Above Movement,” and “Hans’s Right Wing Terror Center.”

‘Boogaloo’ movement

CNN’s investigation identified a connection between these groups and the loosely organized — but heavily armed — right-wing movement “Boogaloo,” whose followers have been arrested for stoking mayhem across the country in an effort to start a second Civil War.

In at least one case, police say, a plot on social media has turned deadly.

Earlier this month, Steven Carrillo, 32, an active-duty Air Force sergeant connected to the Boogaloo movement was arrested in the May 29 fatal shooting of a federal security officer outside a U.S. courthouse in Oakland, California. He is also charged in the subsequent ambush slaying of a California sheriff’s deputy that also injured four other officers.

The plot to target the victims with an AK-47 was hatched a day earlier during an online chat with an accomplice and a third person whom authorities have not named, according to The Associated Press.

‘Traitor against the United States’

In another high-profile case on Monday, Ethan Melzer, 22, of Louisville, Kentucky, was indicted for allegedly planning an attack on his U.S. Army unit by sending sensitive details about the unit — including information about its location, movements, and security — to members of the Order of the Nine Angles, an occult-based neo-Nazi and white supremacist group.

Federal prosecutors said the group, also known as O9A, often uses the Telegram app to spread its "diabolical cocktail of ideologies laced with hate and violence."

Melzer, who proclaimed himself a "traitor against the United States," is charged with conspiring and attempting to murder U.S. nationals, military service members, providing material support to terrorists, and conspiring to murder and maim in a foreign country.

Elsewhere, on June 12,  Aaron Swenson — a 36-year-old Arkansas man with apparent ties to the Boogaloo movement  — was indicted in Texas on attempted murder charges after allegedly threatening to ambush and kill a police officer in a Facebook Live video.

Earlier in the month, three men with ties to the U.S. military and alleged to be members of Boogaloo were arrested on multiple terrorism conspiracy charges of planning to wreak havoc at protests in Las Vegas.

Racist and violent

An analysis by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based think tank on extremism, showed more than 1 million individual incendiary posts on Telegram among dozens of white supremacist channels, CNN reported.

The network monitored more than 60 far-right Telegram channels in which racist and violent thought was regularly promoted and found that several users were seeking out BLM protests and gathering for their own events.

Telegram responds

A Telegram spokesperson told CNN via email: “Telegram is a neutral platform used both by Black Lives Matter and their opponents, as well as by thousands of other political movements around the globe. Our mission is to support privacy, free speech and peaceful exchange of ideas. Calls to violence are not welcome on our platform.

“Telegram allows users to report public calls for violence. Our moderators routinely take down posts violating our Terms of Use — and block channels that are made up entirely of such posts.

“Users who encounter calls to violence on Telegram are advised to report them using the in-app reporting button or to abuse@telegram.org.”

Facebook earlier this month moved to limit the movement’s exposure on its platform by no longer recommending user groups associated with the term “boogaloo” to members of similar associations. Other derivations of “boogaloo” are “big igloo” or “big luau.”

President Donald Trump blames Antifa

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump continues to blame the American militant anti-fascist movement Antifa, repeatedly mentioning the loosely organized movement by name for stoking violence around the country during peaceful protests over Floyd’s death.

But no reports have emerged of any Antifa followers being taken into custody for violence.

Earlier this month, Trump tweeted a conspiracy theory that accused Martin Gugino, the 75-year-old man shoved to the ground by police in Buffalo, New York, of being a “provocateur” with Antifa.

There is no evidence of Trump’s claims, in which the president cited the conservative right-wing media outlet One America News Network, which is widely known for promoting falsehoods.

At the same time the president has never publicly mentioned the Boogaloo movement and chooses only loose terms such as “others” or “other groups” when he might be describing white right-wing extremists.

Last week, Facebook took down 88 Trump campaign ads calling on readers to “stand with President Trump against ANTIFA” and prominently featuring an upside-down red triangle — a symbol the Nazis had used to identify political prisoners. Campaign officials said the triangle was an Antifa symbol, but there’s no evidence of that.

“I don’t see any indication that there were any white supremest groups mixing in,” Trump tweeted recently about violence that erupted nationwide. “This is an ANTIFA Organization.”

Mike Pompeo sounds alarm

Just this week the president’s own administration issued a stern warning about the rapid acceleration of white supremacist terrorism.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday touted the State Department’s annual report on world terror, which described white supremacists’ activities as “on the rise and spreading geographically.”

Pompeo warned that racist groups were expanding to new regions, especially the Sahel in northern Africa.

"Violence (is) both on the rise and spreading geographically, as white supremacist and nativist movements and individuals increasingly target immigrants; Jewish, Muslim, and other religious minorities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and/or intersex (LGBTI) individuals; governments; and other perceived enemies," the report said, according to ABC News.

The report also mentions several high-profile attacks from 2019 that were motivated by ideology, including the Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque shooting in March; the El Paso, Texas, shooting in August; and the Halle, Germany, synagogue shooting in October.

In April, the State Department designated the Russian Imperial Movement, a white supremacist group, as a “foreign terrorist organization.” The action bars U.S. individuals from supporting the group.

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