Jan 18, 2021 - Technology

The perils of organizing underground

Illustration of a hand holding a hammer that is breaking a text message bubble
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Researchers see one bright spot as far-right extremists turn to private and encrypted online platforms: Friction.

Between the lines: For fringe organizers, those platforms may provide more security than open social networks, but they make it harder to recruit new members.

Catch up quick: The online far right is moving away from mainstream social networks and onto both right-wing-welcoming networks like Gab and privacy-friendly platforms like Telegram and Signal, due largely to the collision of three events:

  • Public social media activity left a trail that's been exposing the identities of a growing list of Capitol rioters.
  • The far right is exiting large social networks, either as a political statement or under force of a ban, as tech platforms crack down on extremists.
  • WhatsApp botched the rollout of a new privacy policy, confusing and worrying a massive number of users of all political stripes who then went looking for alternatives.

The catch: As the fringe right burrows underground, experts say it will quickly learn how much harder it is to organize there than on wide-open channels like Facebook and Twitter.

Here's why:

1) Every added step is a chance to lose a follower.

  • Having to download apps and go through steps to verify their identities is bound to dissuade people from joining, said Matt Mitchell, a technology fellow at the Ford Foundation.
  • And when a platform goes down — as an extended Signal outage Friday illustrated — it cuts off the intake entirely.

2) You don't always know who you're talking to. It can be trivially easy in some cases for outsiders to infiltrate private online groups — something not lost on extremists.

  • "We're seeing more recognition among groups on platforms like Telegram, Gab and MeWe that there are security researchers, law enforcement officials and journalists in these groups," said Bryce Webster-Jacobsen, Director of Intelligence at cyber intelligence firm GroupSense.

3) You can still be deplatformed even on private or semi-private forums.

4) Out of sight, out of mind. Experts say domestic terrorists face a similar problem that groups like ISIS have faced after being deplatformed: recruiting gets harder.

  • When images and videos are removed from more public platforms, it becomes more difficult for hate groups to draw in fresh members.

Yes, but: Research shows that when fringe groups are banned from mainstream platforms, the bans often push bad actors to even darker parts of the web, where the conversation becomes even more toxic.

  • That means that while far-right groups may have a harder time drawing in fresh blood than they did on mainstream social networks, the ones that do show up could be more dedicated to the cause.

What's next: The scrutiny (and channel deletions) now rising among the alternative platforms could create smaller and even more radical splinter groups.

  • "You have one fire to take out and instead you made 500 burning embers," said Mitchell.
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