A massive purge of Islamic State (IS) accounts on the messaging app Telegram – the main platform used by the group – has resulted in serious disruption of its propaganda distribution online.
EU crime agency Europol said in a press release on 22 November that a concentrated day of action had meant “a significant portion of key actors within the IS network on Telegram” had been “pushed away from the platform”.
The statement provided no statistics, but Telegram itself said that 2,096 “terrorist accounts and bots” had been taken down on 22 November and 2,959 the following day – compared to a daily average of 200-300 takedowns.
That number was lower than a similar spike in takedowns on 6 December 2018, when 3,276 accounts and bots were disabled in a single day, according to Telegram’s statistics. Europol did not claim to have been involved in that action.
Europol previously claimed to have compromised the propaganda distribution capability of IS during another co-ordinated day of action in April 2018.
But the impact of the disruption appeared to be far greater this time than either the April or December 2018 events, heavily targeting the distribution network of the IS-affiliated Nashir News Agency, which publishes the group’s official propaganda.
The action has also affected accounts on Telegram linked with, or supportive of, al-Qaeda, as well as other jihadist figures active on the platform.
Despite the ongoing disruption, IS has been able to release a handful of fresh statements, but its visibility and reach have been significantly reduced as a result of the ongoing clampdown.
Dozens of mirror channels and groups operated by the Nashir News Agency stopped distributing IS content overnight on 21-22 November as their administrators’ accounts had been deleted.
A small number of IS distribution channels survived the cull and they quickly advertised replacement accounts, but in most cases those too were swiftly taken down, highlighting the intensity of the cat-and-mouse chase.
Similarly, IS supporters scrambled to rebuild their networks on Telegram, voicing defiance, but their regenerated accounts were swiftly disabled.
On 25 November, IS networks were still struggling to rebuild their channels on Telegram. The accounts of Nashir News Agency, the IS-linked online disseminator, remain extremely hard to come by, which significantly minimises visibility of IS propaganda.
Similar to previous clampdowns on IS networks online, the latest action is unlikely to have a lasting impact unless it is persistent.
Already supporters have been discussing how to respond to the clampdown on Telegram.
While the majority have insisted they will persevere on the platform, others have recommended alternatives to Telegram – such as RocketChat and Riot.
But IS-linked accounts on RocketChat, where IS disseminators launched their own server in the wake of a similar Telegram disruption in 2018, have not posted anything since 5 November.
Other IS supporters were also observed to promote the decentralised social network Riot, which jihadists have experimented with in the past, arguing that an alternative to Telegram was now required.
In a more cryptic message, the pro-IS media group Quraysh warned Telegram that its takedown campaign would backfire and implied it would drive jihadists underground where the authorities could not see what they were doing.