Jan 12, 2021 - Technology

The online far right is moving underground

Data: Apptopia; Chart: Axios Visuals

The online purge of far-right figures and platforms that followed last week's Capitol insurrection looks to be driving radicalized users into darker corners of the internet.

What's happening: Downloads have surged for messaging apps that are securely encrypted or designed to cater specifically to the ultra-conservative user.

Why it matters: Monitoring and curbing chatter that can spark real-world violence is even harder on private and ephemeral platforms than in more public forums.

Driving the news: After Twitter and Facebook shut down Trump's accounts, many other services and providers pulled the plug on organizations and forums that supported or served as organizing centers for the Capitol attack.

  • The closing of far-right-friendly social network Parler after Apple, Google and Amazon withdrew service drove some users to look for alternatives that commit to not policing right-wing content.
  • More neutral communication platforms like chat app Telegram and encrypted messaging platform Signal are also seeing a major spike in downloads and usage.

Between the lines: Other factors also drove Telegram and Signal's numbers.

  • A recent update to the privacy policy of Facebook-owned WhatsApp has prompted user worry that their data and communications aren't secure there. That — and an Elon Musk tweet late last week urging "Use Signal" — likely accounts for at least part of the pop.
  • But experts say far-right users are undeniably flocking to those platforms, where they can in some cases communicate in total secrecy.

"It's absolutely concerning," said Dipayan Ghosh, a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. "And it was only to be expected that extremists pushed off of the mainstream social media platforms would move to end-to-end encrypted messaging platforms."

By the numbers ... According to Apptopia data provided to Axios:

  • Downloads of Rumble, the right's answer to YouTube, more than doubled in the last week.
  • MeWe, something of a conservative Facebook, more than tripled.
  • CloutHub, which resembles a combination of Facebook and Twitter, more than quintupled.
  • Downloads of Telegram, meanwhile, more than doubled, while Signal downloads by Jan. 10 were nearly 8x what they were on Jan. 5.
  • And Telegram channels dedicated to far-right causes are filling up. One notable QAnon group had 35,000 members by the morning of Jan. 11, a sharp increase from just a few weeks ago, said Marc-André Argentino, a researcher who studies QAnon and other extremist movements.

Be smart: Platforms dedicated to serving the far right pose tough challenges for those seeking to stem the tide of misinformation and violence-inciting rhetoric.

  • The firms behind them reject even the spotty commitment that mainstream platforms showed to combating harmful content.
  • Law enforcement was already ill prepared to respond to the rhetoric that circulated openly online ahead of the Capitol siege. A far more factionalized social media landscape would further hamper their efforts.

Yes, but: Mainstream messaging platforms like Signal and Telegram could be the bigger problem, for two key reasons:

1. They're more sophisticated compared with the bootstrap platforms that serve the far-right audience.

  • Gab, a right-wing social network, groaned under the increased traffic that followed Parler's disappearance and spent the following days mostly failing to load.
  • Parler users unwittingly exposed identifying data in content that they'd uploaded to the site and that was easily accessed and downloaded en masse before Parler went down.
  • Telegram and Signal are far more stable and secure and could prove more enduring homes and recruitment stations for far-right groups.

2. They can become radicalization pipelines, with groups pushing people to further extremes away from the public eye.

  • On Telegram, Argentino says, open channels serve as a recruiting ground for violent extremists to target new recruits, then shift to more private avenues.

What's next: Despite its troubles, Parler is already showing signs of new life.

  • It switched its domain registration Monday to Epik, a provider that has in the past revived other digital havens of the far right, including Gab, 8chan and neo-Nazi site the Daily Stormer.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to add a reference to recent WhatsApp policy changes.

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