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In the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection, public pressure forced social media companies to increase moderation of misinformation and hate speech. In the process, many users and groups were banned from mainstream sites.
So those users, and some of their audience, are moving to alternative social media sites and apps.
Jared Holt, a resident fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Atlantic Council, said these alternative spaces have seen noticeable growth. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Jared Holt: What we saw after Jan. 6 was this big game of musical chairs, almost, where different communities online, whether it be the believers of the QAnon conspiracy theory, just die-hard Trump supporters, kind of circling around, hopping from place to place on the internet. Eventually, they settled on kind of a handful of their favorite alternative platforms, but they are still plugged in to what’s happening in the mainstream.
Kimberly Adams: How many people are using these alternative platforms, say, compared to some of these more mainstream platforms? And what do we know about these folks?
Holt: So even the largest alternative platforms can’t really hold a candle to mainstream ones. But there are still millions of people using these platforms, and it varies platform to platform. Gab, for example, claims to have millions of users, Telegram has millions and millions of users. And the concern here is not necessarily that anything is inherently wrong with seeking out an alternative place to interact with one another online. But a lot of these alternative platforms that they’ve turned to in the last year were first inhabited, at least in the far-right political realm, by really, really hard-core extremist ideologues. They’re entering a space where, you know, extremists kind of have the home field advantage. And there’s a concern there that people, you know, if they’re not really careful and really paying attention to what they’re coming across could steer them towards even more radical content.
Adams: You just put out a report about how online extremism has adapted and evolved after Jan. 6. What surprised you the most in that report and in your research leading up to it?
Holt: What surprised me is, as far as organizing in right-wing extremism goes and how it relates to the internet, a lot of it’s happening on these smaller scales. So if your goal is to get 12 people out to a school board to do a protest against the mask mandate, you don’t need to have a channel with 1,000 followers on it, maybe you only need 100 people in that channel. But at the same time, the rhetoric and ideology that typically have been relegated to these fringes and extremes is clawing its way further and further into mainstream conservative politics. The organized part is kind of decentralizing but the ideology has kind of shown to be centralizing into mainstream spaces.
Adams: Who’s funding these alternative platforms that, whether they want to or not, seem to become a home for this extremist content?
Holt: Again, it kind of varies platform to platform. Stuff like Telegram, Telegram has many legitimate uses across the world that aren’t extremist politics. But it is a platform that extremists have chosen for its functionality. That gets its funding from its own sources. Then there’s also some of these that exist as explicit political projects. So things like Rumble receiving money from, you know, U.S. billionaires like Peter Thiel, and things like Parler receiving money from the Mercer family. So some of these projects have very clear ideological backers and others are generating money from just ad content, or the same way any kind of app like that generates money.
Adams: Is there an equivalent trend on the left? This creation of a sort of constellation of sites to have content and conversations that may not be permitted on the more traditional social media platforms?
Holt: There is, but to a much lesser degree. Some anarchists and, like, anti-fascist networks have used Telegram, have used platforms like Mastodon to try to generate the idea of kind of a separate internet that is more of a safe space for their ideologies. But there isn’t the same kind of institutional buy-in and even just the raw numbers of users are drastically lower than the right-wing equivalent. So I don’t think there’s a really good comparison between the two. It does exist to some degree, but what’s happening on the political right in that respect is much more significant.
Adams: What does this bifurcation of online speech mean for real-life politics in the U.S.?
Holt: Generally like what this split is signaling is kind of this like appetite for, I think a different kind of internet or a dissatisfaction with platforms taking it upon themselves to try to moderate against some of the more harmful byproducts of it. And what’s alarming to me is, in my opinion, I think these massive platforms should have a very vested interest in moderating against this stuff for the sake of user safety. But, you know, to see buy-in against that idea on such a significant level, is a bit alarming. And it also means that the flow of information in politics is going to be further and further away from the sort of traditional flow that we may have seen even just a decade ago. So one of the most readily apparent examples is just how this is fostering even more [of] these parallel media ecosystems. So people who are on Telegram, for example, and are getting their political news on Telegram will probably never come across a fact check of anything they’re seeing because that’s on a different platform, etc. And I think it’s contributing further to the polarization of politics in America.
Holt’s report, I mentioned, came out this week. It includes charts showing the growth some of the biggest proponents of election misinformation on platforms like Gab, Odysee, Telegram and Parler.
It also digs into the online payment services that allow these sites, and those that use them, to keep making money.
And Axios has a story looking at the broader “echo chamber” it argues the right wing is building with apps, TV channels, video streaming services and even cryptocurrencies designed to avoid the restrictions on other platforms.
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