Gab instead of Twitter, MeWe on Facebook, Telegram for messaging and Discord for insiders – banned from mainstream platforms, the US conspiratorial and supremacist movements, many of which support Donald Trump, have moved to more confidential and difficult networks to regulate.
“Trump’s most extreme supporters were already on alternative platforms,” said Nick Backovic, a researcher at Logically.AI, a firm specializing in digital disinformation.
“The fact that Facebook and Twitter have taken so long to [ban them] allowed influencers to rebuild conversation and groups almost seamlessly.
After the deadly January 6 bombing in Washington, D.C., when hundreds of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol, major social networks took action against the organizations involved, such as Oath Keepers, Three Percenters and Proud Boys.
Facebook has stepped up its purges of accounts linked to the armed movements – nearly 900 accounts in total have been shut down. Twitter has permanently banned Trump and shut down 70,000 QAnon-affiliated accounts – a conspiracy theory that claims the former president is engaged in a battle against a global cult of elite Satan-worshipping pedophiles.
“The de-platform works,” said Jim Steyer, president of the Common Sense Media organization. “Now you look at Trump not being on Twitter, he lost his big speaker, his amplifying microphone to the world.”
But millions of staunch believers and conspiracy theorists refuse to back down, according to experts who fear censorship is uniting otherwise starkly different individuals.
“Look at your QAnon makeup, you have people who would traditionally join militias. And you also have mainstream Republicans, you have your health and wellness yoga instructors and your soccer moms,” said Alex Goldenberg, an analyst at the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI).
“There was quite a bit of difference between these conspiracy communities and the traditional Nazi communities or the white supremacist communities. But it seems like in the face of censorship, they’re starting to blend into the same communities, because that’s really the only place they can go,” he said.
Disappointed supporters are rallying under other banners, particularly the anti-vaccine movement. On the encrypted messaging platform Telegram, groups of tens of thousands of Trump supporters are sharing false rumors about “depopulation vaccines”, between insults to President Joe Biden or immigrants.
These vehement exchanges in uncharted corners of the Internet could be similar, in the eyes of the authorities, to the conversations and rants that occur in bars or around the family table.
The exclusion of large platforms has limited some movements’ capacity for large-scale recruitment, but some embers are smoldering under the ashes.
In late January, for example, a group of protesters halted COVID-19 vaccinations at a stadium in Los Angeles, one of the largest dedicated venues in the country.
Thus the need to regulate alternative platforms comes up against hard moral and practical constraints – the limits of freedom of expression being the subject of lively debate in the United States.
Speak, an alternative to Twitter favored by conservatives, found itself offline for several weeks, banned from the internet by Google, Apple and Amazon because it violated their rules for moderating content inciting violence.
But the platform came back online in mid-February.
Gab and MeWe, which resemble Facebook, saw their popularity explode in the aftermath of the January 6 attack. According to Goldenberg, the platforms are mostly used by people who need to vent their frustration.
“There was no pandemic in 2020. The flu was weaponized to destroy the economy and steal the election [from Trump]Gab user ILoveJesusChrist123 insisted, commenting on a statement from the former president posted on the platform.
Telegram is more conducive to action, via private groups protected by encryption. Gun aficionados, meanwhile, interact on the MyMilitia.com forum.
But where Gab’s founders make no secret of their ties to QAnon, MeWe and Telegram say they could do without any association with conspiracy theorists.
Both networks have made efforts to moderate the postings, but they do not have the necessary resources.
“You have to think of the current movement as of pollution. These groups have grown in power and influence because they have been able to operate freely on Facebook and Twitter,” said Emerson Brooking, extremism and misinformation specialist at the Atlantic Council think tank.
He recommends that competing social networks find a way to share moderation teams and digital assets.
The government should also step in, said NCRI’s John Farmer.
“The government has a responsibility … to treat these platforms like, for example, essential things like water and electricity and broadcast media were once treated like a public trust, and therefore subject to reasonable regulation.”