In the aftermath of the January 6 uprising, public pressure forced social media companies to step up the moderation of disinformation and hate speech. In the process, many users and groups were banned from mainstream sites.
So these users, and some of their audience, turn to other social media sites and apps.
Jared Holt, resident member of Washington, DC-based think tank Atlantic Council, said these alternative spaces have seen notable growth. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Jared Holt: What we saw after January 6 was almost this big game of musical chairs, where different online communities, whether it’s QAnon conspiracy theory supporters, just diehard Trump supporters, sort of spinning. , jumping from place to place on the Internet. Eventually, they settled on a handful of their favorite alternative platforms, but they’re still connected to what’s going on in the mainstream.
Kimberly Adams: How many people are using these alternative platforms, for example, compared to some of these more traditional platforms? And what do we know about these people?
Holt: So even the biggest alternative platforms can’t really stand up to traditional platforms. But there are still millions of people using these platforms, and it varies from platform to platform. Gab, for example, claims to have millions of users, Telegram has millions and millions of users. And the concern here isn’t necessarily that there is something inherently wrong with finding another place to interact with each other online. But a lot of those alternative platforms they turned to last year were first inhabited, at least in the far-right political realm, by really, really hard-core extremist ideologues. They go into a space where, you know, the extremists kind of have the home advantage. And there’s a worry there that people, you know, if they’re not really paying attention and really paying attention to what they come across, might steer them towards even more radical content.
Adams: You just published a report on how online extremism has adapted and evolved after January 6. What surprised you most about this report and your research leading up to it?
Holt: What surprised me is that when it comes to organizing in right-wing extremism and how it relates to the internet, a lot is happening on these smaller scales. So if your goal is to get 12 people to a school board to protest the mask’s mandate, you don’t need to have a channel with 1,000 subscribers, you might only need 100. people in this channel. But at the same time, the rhetoric and ideology that have generally been relegated to these margins and extremes are finding their way more and more into mainstream conservative politics. The organized part is in a way decentralizing, but the ideology has in a way been shown to be centralized in the dominant spaces.
Adams: Who funds these alternative platforms which, like it or not, seem to be becoming the hotbed of this extremist content?
Holt: Again, it varies somewhat from platform to platform. Stuff like Telegram, Telegram has a lot of legitimate uses around the world that are not extremist politics. But it is a platform that extremists have chosen for its functionality. Who gets their funding from their own sources. Then there are also some of them that exist as explicit political projects. So things like Rumble getting money from, you know, American billionaires like Peter Thiel, and things like Talking getting money from the Mercer family. So, some of these projects have very clear ideological backings and others generate money only from advertising content, or in the same way that any kind of app like this generates money.
Adams: Is there an equivalent tendency on the left? This creating some sort of constellation of sites to have content and conversations that may not be allowed on more traditional social media platforms?
Holt: There are, but to a much lesser degree. Some anarchists and, like anti-fascist networks, have used Telegram, have used platforms like Mastodon to try and generate the idea of ââsome sort of separate internet that is more of a safe space for their ideologies. But there is not the same type of institutional membership and even the gross number of users is considerably less than the right-hand equivalent. So I don’t think there is a very good comparison between the two. It does exist to some extent, but what happens to the political right in this regard is much more important.
Adams: What does this bifurcation of online discourse mean for real politics in the United States?
Holt: Usually as what this split signals is kind of like an appetite for, I think some other kind of internet or platform dissatisfaction takes charge of trying to moderate against some of the lesser byproducts. more harmful of it. And what worries me is, in my opinion, I think these massive platforms should have every interest in moderating against this stuff for user safety. But, you know, to see a buy-in against this idea at such a high level is a little alarming. And it also means that the flow of information in politics is going to move further and further away from the type of traditional flow that we perhaps saw just a decade ago. One of the most obvious examples, then, is how it promotes even more [of] these parallel media ecosystems. So, people who are on Telegram, for example, and receive their new policies on Telegram, are likely never to see a fact-check of anything they see because it’s on a different platform, etc. And I think that contributes more to the polarization of politics in America.
Related Links: More information from Kimberly Adams
The Holt report, which I mentioned, came out this week. It includes charts showing the growth of some of the biggest supporters of election disinformation on platforms like Gab, Odysee, Telegram and Parler.
He is also exploring online payment services that keep these sites, and those who use them, making money.
And Axios has a story on the larger “echo chamber” that he argues that the Right built with apps, TV channels, video streaming services, and even cryptocurrencies designed to avoid restrictions on d ‘other platforms.