White supremacist clubs are growing on Telegram.

White supremacist clubs are growing on Telegram.

The Rise of Active Clubs: A New Face for White Supremacy

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On a seemingly ordinary evening in Franklin, Tennessee, a mayoral candidate named Gabrielle Hanson found herself surrounded by members of the Tennessee Active Club, a notorious neo-Nazi hate group. The group claimed they were providing security for Hanson due to alleged threats against her. However, it later emerged that the group was responsible for making death threats against local journalists. The increasing prominence of the Tennessee Active Club and similar organizations highlights the crucial role played by encrypted messaging app Telegram in the recruitment, organization, and dissemination of hate speech within these groups.

“The way that active clubs go about their organizing is resonating with folks on Telegram, where there is a ready-made audience of people who have already written off politics, and they have come to a point in their lives where they think white genocide is real, and they see the active club, in their minds, out there doing something about it,” says Jeff Tischauser, senior researcher with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Active clubs are characterized by their decentralized nature, emphasizing physical fitness and brotherhood while concealing their true extremist ideals. They have experienced explosive growth in recent months, attracting individuals who feel disenfranchised from mainstream politics and are drawn to the active clubs’ narrative of fighting against “white genocide.” Telegram acts as a leading platform for these organizations, providing a pipeline for recruitment, propaganda, and the spread of hate speech.

The expansion of active clubs is facilitated by Telegram’s features, allowing new groups to quickly establish themselves under the guidance of existing leaders. The Telegram channels serve as a prepackaged brand, enabling easy access to the ideology, rhetoric, and merchandise associated with the active clubs. This visibility on Telegram, along with the absence of censorship or restrictions, serves as a powerful recruiting tool, appealing to individuals already sympathetic to the ideas being promoted.

Although the number of active club members participating in real-world activities remains relatively small, the reach of their Telegram channels is substantial. With thousands of followers, the groups can disseminate their ideology to a wider audience, drawing in individuals interested in their agenda. Telegram plays a pivotal role in marketing their movement and providing a platform for unabated hate speech, attracting individuals already subscribed to this dangerous ideology.

While active clubs cultivate a more sanitized image, focusing on physical fitness and camaraderie, some groups, like the Tennessee Active Club, openly glorify white supremacy and neo-Nazi symbolism. This deviation from the public-facing approach prescribed by movement founder Robert Rundo demonstrates the organizational challenges faced due to the decentralized nature of active clubs. Nevertheless, the rapid growth of these groups on Telegram has raised concerns about a potential increase in targeted political violence and acts of terrorism against marginalized communities.

Efforts to combat these extremist groups face significant hurdles due to the private nature of their coordination on Telegram. Secret chats allow active club members to coordinate actions both locally and nationally, making it difficult for researchers and law enforcement to fully understand and counter their activities. Despite the arrest of Rundo, considered the architect of the active club movement, evidence suggests a level of national coordination persists even during his custodial period.

The rise of active clubs and their exploitation of Telegram as a recruitment and dissemination tool necessitates closer attention from both law enforcement agencies and social media platforms. While Telegram claims to prohibit calls to violence, the platform’s transparency and accessibility enable the extremist movement’s growth and allow hate speech to proliferate. Without decisive action, the active club movement may continue its expansion, posing an increasing threat not only to targeted individuals but also to the fabric of society.