Gab instead of Twitter, MeWe on Facebook, Telegram for messaging and Discord for insiders – banned from mainstream platforms, the US conspiracy and supremacist movements, many of which back Donald Trump, have moved to more confidential networks and more difficult to regulate.
“Trump’s most extreme supporters were already on alternative platforms,” said Nick Backovic, researcher at Logically.AI, a company 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 attack in Washington, DC, when hundreds of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol, major social networks have taken action against the organizations involved, such as the 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 closed. Twitter has permanently bans Trump and closed 70,000 accounts affiliated with QAnon – a conspiracy theory that claims the former president is engaged in a battle against a global cult of elite Satan-worshiping pedophiles.
“Dematerialization works,” said Jim Steyer, president of Common Sense Media. “Now that you see Trump is not on Twitter, he has lost his big speaker, his amplifying microphone to the world.”
But millions of devout believers and conspiracy theorists refuse to back down, according to experts who fear censorship unites individuals who are otherwise vastly different.
“Look at the makeup of your QAnon, you have people who traditionally join the militias. And you’ve got traditional Republicans too, you’ve got your health and wellness yoga instructors and soccer moms, ”said Alex Goldenberg, analyst at the Network Contagion Research Institute (CNRI).
“There was a little bit of a difference between these conspiratorial communities and the traditional Nazi communities or the white supremacist communities. But it seems that in the face of censorship, they are starting to merge into the same communities, because this is really the only place they have left, ”he said.
Disappointed followers are regrouping under other banners, in particular the anti-vaccine movement. On the encrypted Telegram messaging platform, groups of tens of thousands of Trump supporters share false rumors about “depopulation vaccines,” between insulting President Joe Biden or immigrants.
These vehement exchanges in unexplored corners of the Internet could be similar, in the eyes of the authorities, to the conversations and diatribes that take place in bars or around the family table.
The exclusion of major platforms has limited the large-scale recruiting capacity of some movements, but some embers are smoldering under the ashes.
At the end of January, for example, a group of protesters COVID-19 vaccinations interrupted in a stadium in Los Angeles, one of the largest dedicated venues in the country.
Thus, the need to regulate alternative platforms comes up against moral and practical constraints – the limits of free speech being the subject of heated debate in the United States.
Parler, a Twitter alternative favored by the conservatives, found itself offline for several weeks, banned from the Internet by Google, Apple and Amazon for violating their content moderation rules that incite violence.
But the platform came back online in mid-February.
Facebook-like Gab and MeWe saw their popularity explode following the January 6 attack. According to Goldenberg, the platforms are mainly used by people who need to express their frustration.
“There was no pandemic in 2020. The flu was armed to destroy the economy and steal the elections [from Trump]User Gab ILoveJesusChrist123 insisted, commenting on a statement by the former president posted on the platform.
Telegram is more conducive to action, via private groups protected by encryption. Firearms 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 dispense with any association with conspiracy theorists.
Both networks have made efforts to moderate assignments, but they lack the necessary resources.
“We have to think of the current movement as pollution. These groups grew in power and influence because they were able to operate freely on Facebook and Twitter, ”said Emerson Brooking, extremism and disinformation specialist with think tank Atlantic Council.
He recommends competing social networks find a way to share moderation teams and digital resources.
The government should also step in, said John Farmer of the NCRI.
“The government has a responsibility … to treat these platforms as, for example, essential things like water and electricity and the broadcast media were once treated as a public trust, and therefore subject to reasonable regulation.”