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 took so long to (ban them) allowed influencers to rebuild conversation and groups almost seamlessly.”
After the deadly January 6 attack in Washington, when hundreds of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, major social media took 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 banned Trump and shut down 70,000 accounts affiliated with QAnon, a conspiracy theory that claims the former president is engaged in a battle against a global cult of elitist Satan-worshiping pedophiles.
“Deploying works,” said Jim Steyer, president of Common Sense Media. “Now that you watch Trump not being on Twitter, he has lost his big speaker, his amplifying microphone to the world.”
But millions of staunch extremists and conspiracy theorists refuse to back down, according to experts who fear censorship will unite individuals who are otherwise very different.
“Look at the makeup of your QAnon, you have people who traditionally join militias. And you also have traditional Republicans, you have your health and wellness yoga instructors and soccer moms,” said Alex Goldenberg, analyst. at the Network Research Center 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 left for them to leave, ”he says.
Disappointed followers are regrouping under other banners, in particular 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 against President Joe Biden or migrants.
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.
But while the exclusion of the main platforms has limited the capacity for large-scale recruitment of extremist movements, the 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 sites in the country.
But the need to regulate alternative platforms comes up against moral and practical constraints. The limits of free speech are the subject of heated debate in the United States.
Talking digital “ pollution, ” a Twitter alternative favored by the Conservatives, was found offline for several weeks, banned from the Internet by Google, Apple and Amazon because it violated their content moderation rules to encourage 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 has been militarized to destroy the economy and steal the elections (from Trump),” Gab user ILoveJesusChrist123 insisted, commenting on a statement by the former president published 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 do without 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 have gained power and influence because they have been able to operate freely on Facebook and Twitter,” said Emerson Brooking, an expert on extremists and disinformation within the think tank Atlantic Council.
He recommends competing social networks find a way to share moderation teams and digital resources.
The government should also intervene, says 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 audiovisual media were once treated. as a public trust, and therefore subject to reasonable regulation. “
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