White nationalists are seizing the opportunity to further radicalise the fragmented pro-Donald Trump movement, after crackdowns by large social networks scattered the former US president’s most ardent supporters on to fringe platforms.
In the run-up to US president Joe Biden’s inauguration, Facebook and Twitter both censored far-right narratives and Mr Trump himself, while the popular rightwing platform Parler was forced offline after Amazon cut its web hosting.
As a result, remaining supporters of Donald Trump — particularly those who follow the persistent QAnon conspiracy theory — have been forced to migrate to alternative platforms such as the messaging service Telegram.
There, fascist groups have been quick to infiltrate pro-Trump channels or even create their own, aiming draw the remnants of the movement towards the extreme right, say experts, with efforts intensifying after Mr Biden’s inauguration.
For instance the nearly 15,000-strong Parler Lifeboat, a group set up by the pro-Trump Proud Boys for “refugees” from the rightwing platform, was swiftly infiltrated by neo-Nazi users, according to one antifascism researcher.
Megan Squire, a professor at Elon University who has extensively studied the extreme-right on Telegram, pointed to screenshots from the group showing white nationalist users attempting to convert new supporters with neo-Nazi emblems and positive content about Adolf Hitler.
In other channels, members post guides on how to engage with Mr Trump’s supporters. “Now that the globalists have delivered the Trumpsters into our hands here at Telegram by the millions, we can use this opportunity to accelerate HATE,” said one, encouraging users to begin with relatively benign topics such as electoral fraud.
The grab for potential followers by the extreme-right comes as the QAnon movement has been left rudderless by Mr Trump’s exit from the White House — an event that contradicted a key prediction that his presidency would not come to an end.
For white nationalists and other members of the extreme right, QAnon believers have often been objects of derision. “They find them to be quite naive,” said Mike Rains, who runs the Adventures in HellwQrld podcast and tracks the conspiracy theory.
“They really think almost nothing of these people except as cannon fodder,” said Marc-André Argentino, a doctoral candidate at Concordia University.
But following the violence of the Capitol Hill riots, white nationalists have recognised the potential usefulness of QAnon supporters, experts say. Meanwhile, the continued belief by many that the election was stolen from them leaves them vulnerable to influence by anti-democratic forces.
“A lot of [QAnon-type people] have reached the ‘there is no political solution’ endgame,” said Ms Squire. “January 6 was the last day they felt they could make a difference in convincing Congress physically to do what they wanted.”
Experts say it is too early to gauge how successful the extreme right will be in co-opting the pro-Trump movement, noting that forceful attempts to reshape conspiracy narratives such as QAnon often run into backlash.
“Wtf is all this talk about patriots and Jews?! Seriously?!” responded one user to a post featuring anti-Semitic sentiments. “Patriot here. WWll veterans daughter. Patriots SAVED THE JEWISH PEOPLE. AND NO ONE SHOULD FORGET THAT.”
Nevertheless, as Mr Rains pointed out, many of the underlying elements of QAnon are anti-Semitic. “Everything about the Illuminati and the New World Order, you can trace it all back to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” he said. “QAnon is basically predicated on hating people — radicalising further into that belief system really isn’t a stretch.”
A more pressing issue for rightwing extremists are Telegram’s efforts to clamp down on public channels that promote violence. A number of the most popular have been shuttered, including at least one containing a large number of weapons and training manuals.
Telegram said the app’s monitoring team was constantly monitoring user reports and proactively removing public calls for violence.
“Between Jan 6 and Jan 14 alone, the Telegram moderators blocked 182 public communities related to the US from disseminating calls for violence which could have otherwise reached tens of thousands of subscribers,” it said, adding that the app works with several anti-terrorist initiatives.
Whether or not white nationalists succeed in drawing QAnon supporters further to the right, experts warn that the events of January 6 have already impressed themselves on rightwing extremists.
“There’s been the realisation that if this mob are able to do that amount of damage, what can people who are waiting for a real chance at a civil war do?” warned Mr Argentino.