Far-right groups emboldened by last week’s riot on the U.S. Capitol are using alternative platforms to rally support for new unrest, after mainstream social media clamped down on violent narratives.
Facebook and Twitter have stepped up their moderation of fringe groups and conspiracy theories since the pro-Trump uprising in Washington DC, which left five people dead and wreaked havoc in the capital.
This has included censoring baseless claims that Democrats illegally won the election, removing some of the most influential supporters of the pro-Trump conspiracy movement QAnon, and banning posters from Mr. Trump himself.
Meanwhile, the popular right-wing social network Speak has been shut down after web service provider Amazon severed ties with it over its alleged role in facilitating violence.
But far from eliminating violent far-right rhetoric from the internet, experts say the changes simply pushed some extremists into messaging apps like Telegram and Signal, which are harder to monitor, and niche sites. of “freedom of speech” such as Gab.
Freed from the constraints of moderation by major platforms, some pro-Trump groups are now using these services to stoke new unrest as President-elect Joe Biden approaches the inauguration on January 20.
“There is so much kinetic energy in space that noise is irrelevant,” said Angelo Carusone, president of the nonprofit Media Matters, citing many “threats” and “outrageous statements” .
Marc Rogers, disinformation expert and vice president of cybersecurity at Okta, an identity management company, said: “Most [the extremist and conspiracy theory groups] have dispersed, but they are trying to come together. . . They set up groups on end-to-end encrypted messaging platforms. ”
Experts say that in particular, many members of the far right have shifted their efforts to Telegram, the Dubai-based encrypted messaging app.
The service allows users to communicate messages to each other privately, but also to have public discussion groups of up to 200,000 members, or to create a “channel” where one person can broadcast to an unlimited number of subscribers.
Telegram reached 11.9 million downloads during the week of the riots, up from 6.5 million the week before, according to Sensor Tower data, a leap that was also fueled by privacy concerns unrelated to WhatsApp, owned by Facebook.
Rival Signal, meanwhile, was downloaded 8.8 million times compared to 246,000 times the previous week.
The growing popularity of encrypted messaging apps – where message data is never accessible to authorities – has made tracking dangerous groups more difficult for law enforcement and researchers.
“The more they go underground, the more effort it takes to identify their discussions, their plans,” said Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism.
Gab, a niche social media platform launched in 2016, has also absorbed refugees from Parler, to the point that its servers have struggled to keep up with demand. The site saw 80 million pageviews this week, according to chief executive Andrew Torba, although he stressed that the platform does not accept violent narratives.
“From the reports I’ve seen, extremists are migrating to encrypted applications like Telegram or Signal, not to Gab,” Torba said. “Extremists know that we have zero tolerance for inciting violence or illegal activity and that we openly work with law enforcement to prevent it on our platform.”
Meanwhile, others have moved on to smaller apps like MeWe and CloutHub, both of which have progressed in App Store charts; their infrastructure has also struggled to cope with the surge in traffic.
MeWe said it is determined to be the “best and safest social network” for its users. “The company is rapidly expanding its trust and security team and adding new tools to help moderators find and remove any violators of the terms of service,” he added.
Signal, Telegram and CloutHub did not respond to requests for comment.
Inside the echo chamber
Experts say the fragmented nature of the smaller platforms could make it more difficult to orchestrate another Capitol Uprising-wide uprising.
“These moderation efforts [by major platforms] completely disrupted the ability of extremists to reach desired audiences beyond their existing echo chambers, ”said Jared Holt, extremism researcher at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Alternative platforms could come under more scrutiny from law enforcement and the companies they work with. Indeed, Telegram began shutting down public extremist and white supremacist groups for the first time on Wednesday, researchers said.
“Telegram has started the cleanup. . .[perhaps]the legal threat is imminent, ”said Sara-Jayne Terp, partner at Threet, a security and disinformation consultancy. “Withdrawals are really rare for Telegram.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Trump’s apparent reluctance to stir up further unrest as the impeachment process advances in the United States has dealt a further blow to the far right.
Downloads for Telegram app during riot week
“You don’t have that unifying voice that President Trump was,” said Graham Shellenberger, disinformation expert at Miburo Solutions, a social media analytics company.
He also noted that some groups, such as the Proud Boys, have actively discouraged users from attending upcoming rallies, fearing that they are “honeypot events” where the FBI may seek to identify and arrest the people. participants.
Nonetheless, the main social platforms remain on alert in the face of incitement to violence in the coming week. A spokesperson for Facebook, who was unwilling to be named for security reasons, said the platform’s 350-person team tasked with eliminating dangerous organizations saw signs of impending unrest.
The spokesperson said he was particularly concerned about several marches planned between now and the day of the inauguration, for which leaflets were distributed online. One event next week has been dubbed the ‘Million Martyrs March’, in honor of QAnon supporter Ashli Babbitt, who was gunned down in last week’s uprising.
“Whenever a movement finds martyrs, activity and action are not far behind,” ADL’s Segal warned.