Far-right groups emboldened by last week’s riot in the US Capitol are using alternative platforms to rally support for further unrest, after mainstream social networks cracked down on violent narratives.
Facebook and Twitter have ramped up their moderation of fringe groups and conspiracy theories since the pro-Trump uprising in Washington DC, which left five people dead and sowed chaos 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 Mr Trump himself from posting.
Meanwhile, the popular rightwing social network Parler was shut down after web service provider Amazon cut ties with it over its alleged role in facilitating the violence.
But far from stamping out violent far-right rhetoric from the internet, experts say the changes have simply pushed some extremists towards messaging apps such as Telegram and Signal, which are harder to monitor, and niche “free speech” sites such as Gab.
Freed of the moderation constraints of the major platforms, some pro-Trump groups are now using these services to stoke further unrest in the run-up to president-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20.
“There’s so much kinetic energy in the space that the noise is off the charts,” said Angelo Carusone, president of non-profit Media Matters, citing numerous “threats” and “outrageous statements”.
Marc Rogers, a disinformation expert and vice-president of cyber security at Okta, an identity management company, said: “Most of [the extremist and conspiracy theory groups] have scattered, but they are trying to reassemble . . . They are setting up groups on end-to-end encrypted messaging platforms.”
Experts say that in particular many on the far-right have shifted their efforts to Telegram, the Dubai-headquartered encrypted messaging app.
The service allows users to message each other privately, but also to have public discussion groups of up to 200,000 members, or create a “channel” where one person can broadcast to an unlimited number of subscribers.
Telegram reached 11.9m downloads during the week of the riots, up from 6.5m the week before, according to data from Sensor Tower, a jump that was also fuelled by unrelated privacy concerns over Facebook-owned WhatsApp.
Rival Signal, meanwhile, was downloaded 8.8m times versus 246,000 times the previous week.
The rising popularity of encrypted messaging apps — where message data cannot ever be accessed by authorities — has made tracking dangerous groups harder for law enforcement and researchers.
“The more that they go underground, the more effort needs to be put into identifying their discussions, their plans,” said Oren Segal, vice-president of the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League.
Gab, a niche social media platform launched in 2016, has also absorbed Parler refugees, to the point that its servers struggled to keep up with demand. The site had 80m page views this week, according to chief executive Andrew Torba, though he stressed that the platform did not accommodate violent narratives.
“From the reporting I have seen, extremists are migrating to encrypted apps like Telegram or Signal, not Gab,” said Mr Torba. “Extremists know that we have zero tolerance for incitement to violence or illegal activity and that we openly work with law enforcement to prevent it on our platform.”
Meanwhile, others have moved to smaller apps such as MeWe and CloutHub, both of which have surged in the App Store charts; their infrastructure has also struggled to cope with the surge in traffic.
MeWe said it was determined to be the “best and safest social network” for its users. “The company is rapidly expanding its trust and safety team and adding new tools to help moderators find and remove all terms-of-service violators,” it 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 might make it more difficult to orchestrate another uprising on the scale of the Capitol insurrection.
“These moderation efforts [by major platforms] have absolutely disrupted extremists’ ability to reach desired audiences beyond their existing echo chambers,” said Jared Holt, a research fellow focused on extremism at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Alternative platforms could face greater scrutiny from law enforcement and the businesses 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 cleaning up . . . [perhaps] the legal threat is imminent,” said Sara-Jayne Terp, partner at Threet, a security and disinformation consultancy. “Takedowns are really rare for Telegram.”
Meanwhile, Mr Trump’s apparent reticence to stoke further unrest as impeachment proceedings advance in the US has dealt a further blow to the far-right.
“You don’t have that unifying voice that president Trump was,” said Graham Shellenberger, disinformation expert at Miburo Solutions, a social media analysis company.
He also noted that some groups, such as the Proud Boys, have actively discouraged users from attending forthcoming rallies, over concerns that they could be “honeypot events” where the FBI might seek to identify and arrest attendees.
Nevertheless, the major social platforms remain on high alert for incitement to violence in the coming week. A spokesperson for Facebook, who did not want to be named for safety reasons, said the platform’s 350-strong team tasked with rooting out dangerous organisations had seen signals of imminent unrest.
The spokesperson said they were particularly concerned about several marches planned between now and inauguration day, for which flyers have been distributed online. One event next week has been dubbed the “Million Martyr March”, in honour of the QAnon supporter Ashli Babbitt, who was shot during last week’s insurrection.
“Whenever a movement finds martyrs, activity and action is not far behind,” warned ADL’s Mr Segal.