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White Supremacist Active Clubs Are Breeding on Telegram

Oct 7, 2023 7:00 AM

White Supremacist Active Clubs Are Breeding on Telegram

A “friendlier” front for racist extremism has spread rapidly across the US in recent months, as active club channels network on Telegram's encrypted messaging app.

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Photograph: David Crockett/Getty Images

On Monday evening, Gabrielle Hanson, a pro-MAGA mayoral candidate in Tennessee, walked through the parking lot of Franklin City Hall, on her way to debate her opponent, incumbent Ken Moore, in what was meant to be little more than a typical campaign stop in the small city of Franklin just south of Nashville.

What made this scene so different was the fact that Hanson was flanked by members of the Tennessee Active Club, an openly neo-Nazi hate group. One of the men escorting Hanson into the building was Sean Kauffmann, the reported leader of the group whom the Southern Poverty Law Center says has been part of the white supremacist movement for years, and was photographed giving a Nazi salute at a Black Lives Matter rally.

The group stood outside the building as the event took place, and they told a local reporter that they were there to provide security for Hanson, claiming that “credible threats” had been made against her. The Franklin Police Department tells WIRED that they have no information about threats against Hanson. Instead, the police department is investigating death threats made against local journalists by Kauffmann’s group in their Telegram channel just hours after the campaign event ended.

The threats, which included anti-Semitic slurs and references to white supremacist literature, featured the image of one reporter’s home after one follower asked: “Who is this person? Where can I find them so I can beat the shit out of them?”

Active clubs are a decentralized network of groups that have recently become the new, so-called friendlier face of the white supremacist movement, by promoting physical fitness and brotherhood while hiding their true nature. The movement has experienced explosive growth in recent months. For researchers who have been tracking the rise of this movement, the use of Telegram to disseminate threats like those in Franklin highlights the crucial role the encrypted messaging app has played in helping these groups recruit, organize, and spread hate speech to a huge following.

“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,” Jeff Tischauser, senior researcher with the Southern Poverty Law Center, tells WIRED. “I see Telegram as a leading pipeline into the creation of active clubs, because that's just where a lot of the rhetoric and the content and the propaganda of active clubs exist.”

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Are you a current or former member of an active club? We’d like to hear from you. Using a nonwork phone or computer, contact David Gilbert atdavid.gilbert@wired.com.

The first threat made by the Tennessee Active Club’s Telegram channel was aimed at Phil Williams, chief investigative reporter for NewsChannel 5 WTVF, who has written extensively about Hanson’s campaign in recent months—including reports on Hanson’s prior arrest for promoting prostitution. (She says she took a plea deal.) Williams has also exposed the hypocrisy of Hanson and her campaign. As an alderman, Hanson attempted to block a permit for a Pride festival in Franklin; Williams reported that she supported her husband’s participation in the 2008 Chicago Pride parade while wearing a pair of Speedos.

After Williams posted pictures of the Tennessee Active Club at the candidate forum on Monday night, the group’s Telegram channel shared a post calling Williams a “lying sack of shit for the international jew media” before warning that the “Day of the Rope is real and it’s approaching quicker than they can prepare for.”

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The post concluded: “You better run … run … run.”

“Day of the Rope” is a reference taken from the 1978 white supremacist book, The Turner Diaries. The concept in recent years has become shorthand for attacks on journalists, politicians, and others who oppose the white supremacist revolution.

Williams did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment on the threats but did address them on X (formerly Twitter) on Tuesday evening. “This is a story that is important to this community. I will not be deterred from continuing to do my job,” Williams wrote, adding: “Truth will prevail!”

The group also threatened Holly McCall, the editor of the Tennessee Lookout, a nonprofit outlet covering local government, after she posted a comment on X mocking the appearance of some members of the Tennessee Active Club present on Monday night.

The group responded on Telegram writing, “That’s our cyber division Holly.” In a comment under the group’s post, a follower wrote: “Who is this person? Where can I find them so I can beat the shit out of them? So they know I am in fact active and lurking.”

The group then posted a picture of McCall’s house taken from what appears to be her husband’s Facebook account. WIRED confirmed that the picture was McCall’s home.

McCall declined WIRED’s request to comment on the threats. In a post on X on Tuesday evening, she wrote: “I hadn't planned to publicly comment, but yup, I'm the Holly these guys want to beat the shit out of.”

At least some of these threats were flagged to the Franklin Police Department. Milissa Reierson, communications manager for the city of Franklin, told WIRED she cannot comment on specific investigations, but she said they are “monitoring the events from [Monday] night,” adding that the city “takes any threat seriously.”

Hanson, an extreme right-wing candidate who spread conspiracy theories about the Covenant School shooting in Nashville in March, did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment. She claimed in a Facebook post that she did not hire or ask the Tennessee Active Club to provide protection for her, adding: “I am not, nor have I ever been associated with any white supremacy or Nazi-affiliated group.”

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However, within minutes of posting this statement on Facebook, her Instagram account shared a screenshot taken directly from the Tennessee Active Club Telegram channel. The post makes baseless claims that her opponent was a member of antifa, the loose-knit network of anti-fascist activists, even though he’s a lifelong Republican politician in his 70s. The Telegram posts also said, “You don’t want us showing up” and “remember there is no political solution.”

Hanson is also the listed realtor of the Lewis Country Store, a gas station on the outskirts of Nashville owned by self-described “literal Nazi” Brad Lewis, where the members of the Tennessee Active Club train together with other white supremacist groups.

Active clubs emerged in late 2020. They’re the brainchild of Robert Rundo, an American white supremacist who is alleged to have cofounded the Rise Above Movement, a combat-ready group with ties to street fighting gangs. Rundo was extradited to the US earlier this year after being arrested in Romania on anti-riot act charges related to violent clashes with anti-fascist protesters in Los Angeles in 2017. (Rundo was charged with the same crime in 2017, but the charges were dismissed before being reinvestigated.)

Rundo was inspired by similar groups he observed while in Europe, and he views the active club movement as part of a “White Supremacy 3.0” strategy, which attempts to move away from the overtly violent and Nazi-infused movements of the past to present a friendlier public face of white supremacy.

Emphasizing physical fitness among active club members, Rundo has stated that his aim is to create a stand-by militia of trained and capable right-wing extremists who can be activated when the need for coordinated violent action on a larger scale arises.

“I definitely do believe that in the future there needs to be a mass movement, a mass organization, but when it comes for that, do you really want a bunch of guys coming strictly from the online world to come join a mass movement without having any experience or skills?” Rundo said in a video posted online just weeks before he was arrested in March. “Active clubs are a great local way to start guys off as they come from the online world into the real world, to learn actual skills.”

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While initial takeup of the active club idea was relatively slow, there has been explosive growth in the movement’s numbers this year, research shows. In April 2023, a report from the Accelerationism Research Consortium, a group of researchers, academics, and journalists who track the spread of accelerationism, found that there were 30 active clubs operating in 17 different states. By August, research conducted by Alexander Ritzmann for the Counter Extremism Project (CEP), a nonprofit that tracks extremist groups, found that there were 46 clubs operating in 34 different states—a 50 percent increase in the number of clubs and a 100 percent increase in the geographical spread in the space of just five months.

Because the network is decentralized, with each local group operating relatively independently, it allows anyone who wants to start an active club to do so very quickly. And Telegram is playing a central role in that explosive growth.

"A couple of guys who are motivated by racial animus or anti-Semitic hatred, they can go on Telegram, message a leader or an administrator of an active club channel, and the administrator will help this new group create the branding,” Tischauser says. “It’s basically a template that anybody can access if they have that political ideology. It's like a prepackaged brand that anybody could access.”

The number of members who partake in real-world activities with active clubs—everything from mixed martial arts training to handing out flyers and harassing LGBTQ events— is small, with each cell having on average between five and 25 members. But the number of people following these groups on Telegram is many times larger. Some of the groups have thousands of followers, and almost all typically have hundreds of followers.

A number of those followers will be researchers, law enforcement officers, and journalists. But there are also a huge number of people who are monitoring these groups because they already have an interest in the ideas being discussed.

“Telegram is the place where the active clubs are the most active. It is an essential component for the circulation not just of their ideology, but of their marketing,” Tischauser says. He points out that all the groups expect members to purchase branded gear from the Will2Rise website, an activewear brand established by Rundo that Rolling Stone described as “the Lululemon for fascists.”

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Telegram is also a hugely powerful recruiting tool, giving this movement a platform free of censorship or restrictions to spread its message to a much larger audience than it would have on other mainstream platforms.

“Alt-tech platforms—and Telegram is really one of the biggest examples of this—provide these hate groups with a ready-made audience of people that already subscribe to this very hateful ideology,” Tischauser says.

The vast majority of the Telegram channels identified as belonging to the clubs listed in the CEP report are public, available for everyone to see. The transparency is part of Rundo’s White Supremacy 3.0 strategy where he urges groups to only post positive content about training of the sense of brotherhood that the clubs claim to inspire, while avoiding violent threats and Nazi symbolism. But some groups do not appear to be subscribing to Rundo’s ideals—chief among them, the Tennessee Active Club.

“I don't think they got that memo,” Tischauser says. “They've always been posting Nazi stuff and glorifying Hitler, being very rabidly anti-Semitic. They showed up to at least two cities in Tennessee and they were flying the swastika, while Sean Kauffman, the leader, is seen giving the Heil Hitler hand gesture.”

Telegram tells WIRED that it is investigating the threats made in the Tennessee Active Club channel. “Telegram is a platform that supports the right to peaceful free speech, but calls to violence are explicitly forbidden on our platform,” Remi Vaughn, a spokesperson for the messaging app, wrote in a statement. “Our moderators proactively monitor public parts of the platform and accept user reports in order to remove content that breaches our terms of service.”

For everything we know about the growth and spread of active clubs on Telegram, there is an entire world that is off-limits to journalists and researchers, where members of these clubs coordinate and network in secret. A local anti-fascist activist in Tennessee, who is closely monitoring some of these nonpublic channels and requested anonymity due to threats to their safety from the groups they are tracking, confirmed to WIRED the existence of the secret chats, which they say are used to coordinate actions both locally and nationally.

While active clubs effectively operate independently—a deliberate decision, taken so that the movement can continue even if one group is deactivated—there still appears to be a level of national coordination happening, even while Rundo is in custody awaiting trial. This coordination was seen in August 2023 when a white nationalist fight club event took place in Southern California featuring members from multiple active clubs across the United States, including the Tennessee club, as well as members of other hate groups like Blood Tribe and Patriot Front.

“There's some national leadership within the active clubs who are talking with each other, maybe it's at the chapter leader level, where they're talking and they're organizing these events and then mobilizing folks to come out, which takes a lot of resources and logistics,” Tischauser says. “So there has to be some kind of structure there.”

Tischauser says he sees little preventing the active club movement from continuing to grow rapidly. He says he has already seen a number of new clubs emerge since the CEP report was published last month—and that’s a real concern because, as Ritzmann bluntly states in his report: “If Active Clubs are allowed to continue to operate and multiply, the likelihood for targeted political violence and terrorism by their members against supposed enemies of the ‘white race’ (e.g., Jews, people of color, Muslims, and LGTBQI+ people) will increase.”

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David Gilbert is a reporter at WIRED who is covering disinformation and online extremism, and how these two online trends will impact people's lives across the globe, with a special focus on the 2024 US presidential election. Prior to WIRED, he worked at VICE News. He lives in Ireland.
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