Insurrection, Inc: What Telegram Tells Us About the Business of Populist Revolt

Blog Post
Photo: Anderson Photo/
Sept. 28, 2022

As the House Select Committee on the investigation into the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol resumes its hearings, it is worth reflecting on what we’ve learned so far about how the rise of the far-right alt-tech movement fueled much of the violence that day and since. What is abundantly clear is that alt-tech activists have substantially evolved their tactics since the Parler social media app was temporarily shutdown in the immediate aftermath of the violence that resulted in the deaths of five people.

While startup alt-tech platforms like Parler and Gettr are still relevant, today the Russian-made, UAE-based social media app Telegram is now the platform of choice for many alt-tech activists inspired by far-right ideas and influencers as well as politicians like former president Donald Trump. The shift appears to be a direct response to tech industry titans’ efforts to regulate false and violent content on their services. The trend has subsequently birthed a cottage industry of profit making ventures that hawk spurious COVID-19 cures, protection against 5G radiation, and online anonymizing technologies–all of which have become inextricably linked to messaging on far-right Telegram channels.

The first signs of these shifting dynamics appeared early this year in January and February when thousands of semi-trailer trucks crowded into downtown Ottawa, blocking traffic and disrupting daily life for residents. Organizers of the so-called “Freedom Convoy” launched the movement to protest mandates for COVID vaccines for anyone crossing the U.S.-Canada border, but the protest quickly morphed into a generalized right-wing populist uprising against government responses to the pandemic. Hundreds of 18-wheelers, flatbed trucks, and other types of vehicles converged on Canada’s capital, Ottawa, many of them traversing the continent in a convoy from as far away as Vancouver. The protests would last nearly a month as thousands occupied key roadways and city areas in an attempt to pressure Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to revoke the vaccine mandates.

What began in Canada, however, soon spread to the United States and beyond. Many–including those who participated in the violent riot at the Capitol–saw the trucker caravans as the spiritual successor to the January 6, 2021, attack in which thousands of Trump supporters overran the U.S. Capitol.

A year and a half after the Capitol attack, the United States seems even more polarized and divided, with 1 in 5 Americans reportedly saying that they believe political violence is justified in some circumstances, according to a large-scale survey published in July by the University of California-Davis. The trucker caravan and the swift leap to Telegram as an organizing platform only one year after the assault on Congress are reminders that extremist currents are fast-moving and dynamic. The alt-tech movement and the far-right, anti-government, and white supremacist ideas and attitudes that birthed it are constantly adapting and evolving in concert with efforts to counter them. Indeed, the trucker caravans, and the Telegram groups in which they were coordinated, demonstrate that organizer and donor networks linked to the “Stop the Steal” movement remain active and effective. Understanding how these networks operate, communicate, and solicit funds will be critical to efforts to curtail future violence. As the midterm elections for Congressional seats and state legislatures draw near, examining how the alt-tech movement is evolving could provide hints as to how the contentious politics of the post-election period will play out.

Anti-vax Rage from Canada to the World

On January 15, 2022, the Trudeau administration began requiring truckers crossing between the United States and Canada to be vaccinated for COVID-19. Although 90 percent of Canadian truckers were already vaccinated by this point in the pandemic, what supporters called the “Freedom Convoy” soon coalesced in reaction to the government’s mandate, as well as prior grievances over mask mandates and other social restrictions intended to slow the spread of COVID-19. The convoy took freedom from “tyrannical government overreach” as its rallying cry, attracting support from conservative public figures in the United States and members of the far-right worldwide.

While the protests did not succeed in directly influencing policy decisions for either the U.S. or Canadian governments, they were successful in raising money and garnering public attention. Ten million U.S. dollars in donations were made to the Freedom Convoy GoFundMe fundraising page, although GoFundMe subsequently froze the money on the grounds that the donations violated the platform’s terms of service. In the immediate aftermath, the competitor site GiveSendGo received $8.7 million in donations in a matter of days.

Donations to the protesters began as a way to pay for fuel costs and recoup lost wages, but soon became a magnet for broader political causes. Cryptocurrency enthusiasts celebrated the use of bitcoin and other virtual currencies as a way to evade government “crackdowns,” with some fundraisers claiming to deliver hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cryptocurrencies to the truckers.

Before long, the convoy had inspired a wave of similar protests in the United States, including an effort to drive convoy traffic to Washington, D.C. There was a notable overlap in tone and networks of supporters between both the American and Canadian Freedom Convoy protest movements and participants in the January 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol.

Taking to Telegram

Starting in mid-February, the social media platform Telegram saw an uptick in activity discussing trucker caravans. As reported in Mother Jones, Telegram became a key hub for planning similar protests in the United States and beyond. Telegram’s light touch and large user base made it the ideal place for anti-vax moms to meet anti-government truckers and form the digital grassroots of an increasingly global movement. Supporters began to see the Canadian trucker protest as a repeatable model, and soon Telegram channels popped up for trucker caravans around the world.

Telegram is fast becoming a preferred platform of last resort for users who run afoul of other sites’ terms of service. Evolving from a peer-to-peer messaging service into one of the world’s largest social media platforms, Telegram takes a hands-off approach to content moderation. This has made it a haven for groups that are routinely deplatformed from other sites such as white supremacists, anti-government militias, and anti-vaccine activists. While the site’s users skew toward India, Indonesia, and Russia, Telegram has seen robust worldwide growth in recent years, reaching 700 million users worldwide in June of 2022. That is especially true for niche Internet users such as the largely U.S.-driven alt-tech ecosystem.

Noticing this uptick in Telegram activity, we became curious about the scale and pace of this shift. Starting in February 2022, we searched for Telegram channels with the largest amounts of followers and found that the highest ranking channels at the time that mentioned “truckers” also mentioned the term “truckers for freedom.” On February 15, 2022, we collected a year’s worth of data from 18 of these channels. To be included in our dataset, the channels also needed to mention the word “convoy.” While not a comprehensive review of all trucker protest-supporting Telegram channels, these data give us some insight into the kinds of conversations that occurred under the banner of a global movement.

In our analysis, very little if any of the content of these channels focused exclusively on the execution of a caravan protest. Instead, these channels focused on raising awareness, encouraging donations to specific links, and calling out notable individuals for attention. While it is not surprising to observe these elements within the channels, there is one additional aspect that stood out: the use of these channels as window space for hawking products. Like vendors swarming a real caravan to provide goods and services, we observed determined efforts in this virtual caravan to profit from anti-government protest.

Measured by Telegram’s “views” count, by far the most popular channel was Truckers for Freedom Global (@truckersforfreedomglobal). Also notable was an anti-vaccine, alternative medicine channel that supported the caravans under the handle @freedomideasnovax. The latter received daily views totalling between 500,000 and one million for nearly a year prior to February 2022.

Here is a trend line of views per channel from our collection. @freedomideasnovax is shown in dark green. @truckersforfreedomglobal is shown in pink.

Figure 1.

A trend line of views per Telegram channel from our collection


While the @truckersforfreedomglobal channel skyrocketed in views in mid-February, @freedomideasnovax demonstrated a consistent following before the convoys, but adapted its content to cover the convoys when protests emerged in early 2022. As we will see, we have reason to suspect they are controlled by common users.

An Online Bazaar

What do we see on each of these channels? In both the prominent channels and the smaller ones in our collection, appeals abound to protect oneself from radiation, surveillance, the “poison jab,”–a reference to COVID vaccines–and the collapse of society. In turn, these channels hawk a comprehensive line of products to fit the bill. For example, a post on @truckersforfreedomusa from February 13, 2022, advertised emergency food supplies with the warning that “[o]nce it happens, it’s already too late.”

Figure 2.

A February 13, 2022, post from the @truckersforfreedomusa channel


Other messaging emphasized health and wellness. One February 15, 2022, post found on @freedom_convoy_messages_uncensored_news promoted an anti-cavity treatment capable of rebuilding “teeth and gums almost overnight!”

Figure 3.

A February 15, 2022, post from the @freedom_convoy_messages_uncensored_news channel


Another post from the channel @convoy2022news from February 15, 2022, advised readers not to listen to “government experts” about the “plandemic” but instead to purchase a medical manual called “The Home Doctor,” which the author described as the “Republican answer to big pharma.”

Figure 4.

A February 15, 2022, post from the @convoy2022news channel


Among popular terms appearing in our collection such as “freedom” (1,743 occurrences), “Trump” (46 occurrences), and “truckers” (1,594 occurrences) is the word “Aulterra,” which appears 515 times. Aulterra is a holistic wellness website that sells crystals, products supposedly mitigating 5G cellular radiation, and other items that claim to promote general wellness. Promotions for this site occur across many of the channels in our collection, including the most-viewed @truckersforfreedomglobal.

Online anonymizing technology also figures prominently in the collection. For example, the popular channel @truckersforfreedomglobal relentlessly promoted the use of a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to protect oneself from prying government eyes. The first incidence of a VPN nod comes on February 4, 2022, at the start of the Telegram Channel’s activity:

Figure 5.

A February 4, 2022, post from the @truckersforfreedomglobal channel


By February 15, messaging on the channel had become more verbose around VPNs. The following post from @truckersforfreedomglobal laid out the reasoning for the importance of a VPN and included an affiliate link to purchase one.

Figure 6.

A February 15, 2022, post from the @truckersforfreedomglobal channel


This offer link–found in both posts–is a conspicuous piece of our Telegram corpus. The exact same offer link appears in both @truckersforfreedomglobal and @freedomideasnovax. What’s more, it appears in 64 different posts in our collection since January 1, 2022. Going back to October of 2021, the link occurs more than 200 times, originally posted by @freedomideasnovax. This pattern of two Telegram channels repeatedly posting an identical affiliate link–which funnels money to the link’s creator–suggests a fundamental connection between the channels. The two channels may even share an owner.

The potential revenue from such a link is significant. Combined, the two channels account for hundreds of thousands of views. By one estimate, the ratio of clicks to dollars for VPN affiliate links is approximately 1,500 clicks to earn $60. If the industry average for affiliate links of 1.9 percent of 4,000,000 viewers of the channel on a given day were to click on the link, the daily revenue would be approximately $3,000. While there is significant margin of error in this estimate, the relentless posting of this link across two channels that are not nominally linked indicates a real interest in cashing in on the opportunity afforded by increased attention to the trucker caravans.

The reach of a highly-subscribed channel on Telegram–and the ability of the platform’s channel format to bring users together around a tightly curated stream of content–lends itself to online organizing. The channel host has authority about what content is broadcast, making it a handy go-to place for information and updates. The username of the administrator is also not displayed, with the channel name being listed as the author of posts instead. Because it provides both centralization and some degree of anonymity, the Telegram channel format lends itself to the interdependent activities of propagandizing and profiteering. Telegram deserves the attention of researchers interested in understanding the various ways supporters of right-wing populism can be organized and leveraged.

The Business of Populist Rebellion

These Telegram posts make up a small volume of the overall activity online surrounding the 2022 trucker protests in the U.S. and worldwide. But they indicate a key dynamic to watch for as protests threaten to re-emerge in the United States surrounding both the 2022 midterms and former President Donald Trump’s legal troubles. Protests are not just fundraising opportunities for big-name activists or political candidates. Rather, they create opportunities for smaller-scale entrepreneurs and opportunists to cash in, too. In turn, this incentivizes those benefiting to stoke the sound and fury of right-wing spectacle, creating a self-sustaining feedback loop that drives toward ever more extreme politics.

The trucker convoys also heralded Telegram’s arrival as a major player on the alt-tech stage. With its growing user base, minimal moderation, and anonymity-friendly privacy policies, Telegram offers opportunities to broadcast messages to potentially huge audiences with little risk of being deplatformed, moderated, or even identified.

From January 6, 2021, to February 2022, the use of alt-tech by right-wing extremists underwent a phase change. In the twelve months between protests in DC and Ottawa, Parler was deplatformed, then re-booted, while Telegram expanded its reach with 430 million downloads in 2021 alone. This shift demonstrates that the world of alt-tech remains fit and agile. That is, the political movements that use these platforms show a willingness to change and adapt to the most useful available technologies, and the landscape of those technologies is constantly shifting.

Although the January 6 Committee has worked to evaluate the role of social media and tech in fueling extremist violence, this scrutiny has been episodic. Understanding the rapidly changing terrain of alt-tech demands constant attention to multiple platforms that wax and wane in popularity. Congress cannot afford to ignore online communities that are doing their best to fly under the radar. It might be tempting for policymakers at this stage to view events like the January 6 attack and the trucker convoys as discrete episodes, but both are expressions of a durable and adaptable movement that sustains itself online between violent outbursts. To that end, Congress should consider holding a dedicated hearing to shine a light on what is clearly a permanent trend in our contemporary politics. Failure to do so could easily set conditions for another insurrection come 2024.

Crystal Nguyen contributed research for this article.