Axios Login

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February 09, 2021

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Today's Login is 1,390 words, a 5-minute read.

1 Big thing: How to deprogram America's extremists

Illustration of a brain in an ice bucket

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

It will take an all-out national effort to dismantle the radicalization pipeline that has planted conspiracy theories in the heads of millions of Americans and inspired last month's attack on the Capitol, experts tell Axios' Kyle Daly.

Two key measures that could make a difference:

  • Keeping extremists out of the institutions where they could do the greatest damage — like the military, police departments and legislatures.
  • Providing help for those who have embraced dangerous ideologies.

Online platforms, meanwhile, must be unwavering in their commitment to root out conspiracy theories and lies that undermine faith in democracy, according to experts interviewed by Axios.

  • Radicalization and counterterrorism experts broadly applaud tech companies' efforts, now under way, to remove this material and the accounts that spread it off their platforms, despite heavy blowback from conservatives.
  • Twitter's decision to ban former President Trump is seen on its own as a major asset in the fight to slow or reverse radicalization.

The U.S. needs a "Marshall Plan against domestic extremism," Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies, told Axios.

  • "The spread of extremist conspiracy theories in the United States is the second most dangerous pandemic the country faces right now," he said. "The damage that's been to the U.S. in terms of community and social cohesion will be immense and will be lasting."
  • The radicalization is happening in a multitude of online spaces and right-wing media channels, pulling people into an alternate reality that posits, among a growing swarm of other false ideas, that the 2020 election was stolen.
  • When it comes to coordinated deradicalization efforts, the U.S. is behind most European countries by 25 to 30 years, Koehler said.

The latest: Twitter and Facebook continue to step up action aimed at driving extremism and far-right misinformation off their platforms. But the efforts will have to go well beyond the tech platforms.

A key part of breaking extremists' rising mainstream influence will be making it unacceptable for white nationalists, anti-government extremists and conspiracy theorists to serve in the military, in police forces or as lawmakers.

  • Experts worry that the GOP's tacit and sometimes explicit approval of extremists will hamper efforts to keep police forces and legislatures free of conspiracy theorists.
  • "At DOD, it will go well and they will quash it," said former FBI counterterrorism analyst Clint Watts. "It's a lot of sheriffs' departments that make me nervous, because they're elected. Politics means you go with party."

Yes, but: A purely punitive, security-minded approach alone is likely to prove ineffective and invasive at best, experts say. At worst, it will only fuel extremists' sense of persecution and push them closer to violence.

Instead, experts agree serious resources need to be mustered toward providing an offramp for people who have been drawn into extremist ideologies.

  • New federal programs would likely be doomed to fail, experts say, because distrust and hatred of the government is already a core tenet of far-right extremism.
  • Instead, private and public-private programs are more likely to be effective, particularly if they're able to get endorsement and funding from federal and state governments.
  • Those could include anti-extremism counseling programs and support groups; education programs that work with schools to identify risks and signs of incipient radicalization; and rehabilitation organizations that work with the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated.

2. Scoop: Voters in poll say social media radicalizes

A majority of Americans think social media "has played a role in radicalizing people," according to a new poll from Accountable Tech and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner shared exclusively with Axios' Ashley Gold.

The big picture: As misinformation proliferates online about COVID-19, vaccines and politics, social platforms are walking a tightrope between protecting freedom of speech and tamping down the flow of misleading content.

By the numbers: In an online poll of 1,000 registered voters taken Jan. 28–31, 44% of respondents strongly agreed and 41% somewhat agreed with the statement that social media has played a role in radicalizing people.

  • 71% of respondents said the federal government should impose stronger regulation on social media platforms, and 74% said misinformation on social media is an extremely or very serious problem.
  • 76% said social media platforms are at least somewhat responsible for the Capitol riot, and 7 in 10 said the riot was the result of years of unchecked extreme behavior online.

3. Clubhouse gains momentum as Big Tech leaders join

Clubhouse logo

Image: Clubhouse

Recent appearances from Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk on Clubhouse are bringing attention to the venture-backed audio social network, which has also seen a boost in downloads over the past few weeks, Axios' Sara Fischer and Kia Kokalitcheva report.

Yes, but: The app is already beginning to face the same growing pains that other upstart social networks have experienced for years. For example, Clubhouse — which requires an invite to access — is reportedly already being blocked in China.

By the numbers: Clubhouse has been downloaded about 4.7 million times to date since launch, according to Apptopia.

  • It's grown a lot faster in the past 90 days, the firm says. It hit 1 million downloads at the end of last year, per Apptopia. For now, it's only available on iOS.

Catch up quick: The app has been available in the App Store since September, after months of quiet testing among tech insiders.

  • The company recently raised around $100 million in Series B funding led by existing investor Andreessen Horowitz at a $1 billion post-money valuation.

Between the lines: Like any social app, Clubhouse has already raised questions about the culture it engenders. It drew early concerns that it was porting problematic and insular elements of Silicon Valley to a new, initially insider-only platform.

  • Since then, it has seen criticism from Black users who feel they’ve played a big role in Clubhouse’s rise without being compensated, as well as journalists and others who have been met with hostility and blocking from tech insiders.

The big picture: A slew of apps centered around audio are booming, as audio messaging becomes a bigger part of social media and work amid the pandemic.

4. Experts: Vaccine misinfo crackdown comes too late

Illustration of a vaccine vial with a warning label starting to peal off

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Facebook on Monday became the latest in a run of tech firms and media outlets taking action to stem the tide of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, but experts tell Margaret Harding McGill and Sara Fischer that the scramble to limit such misinformation may prove too little, too late.

Why it matters: "With all of these press releases, what we don't understand is, how is it actually going to be operationalized?" says Claire Wardle, the U.S. director of anti-misinformation nonprofit First Draft. "Anti-vaxxers have historically always figured out where the policy guidelines are and figure out a way around them."

Driving the news: In a partial reversal from its previous position on vaccine misinformation, Facebook said Monday it will take tougher action during the pandemic against claims that vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccines, are not effective or safe.

Twitter, TikTok, YouTube and other platforms have also beefed up their anti-vaccination misinformation efforts in recent months.

  • Fox News last week debuted a new COVID-19 vaccine PSA featuring some of its talent. The ad comes two weeks after Sean Hannity said he is "beginning to have doubts" about whether he would take a vaccine.

Yes, but: These efforts are only coming after anti-vax sentiment has swirled largely unchecked for years on major platforms — and months after public health officials began explaining that vaccines are likely the only way out of the pandemic.

The big picture: While recent polls suggest Americans are growing more receptive to getting vaccinated, exposure to online COVID-19 misinformation makes people demonstrably less willing to do so, according to a peer-reviewed study published Friday in Nature.

Be smart: Months of COVID-specific vaccine misinformation and years of more general falsehoods about vaccination may have already hardened millions of Americans against getting a shot, no matter what online platforms and media outlets do now.

What's next: Advocates want tech platforms to be more accountable for misinformation. Karen Kornbluh of the German Marshall Fund suggested "a code for dealing with dangerous activity online," whether adopted voluntarily or under regulatory pressure.

5. Take note

On Tap

  • Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff is giving a 2021 company update at 3:45pm PT, along with other executives and partners as part of a video series that will be livestreamed on the company's Twitter account.
  • Today's earnings reports include Twitter, Cisco and Lyft.

Trading Places

  • Marketing tech company Applecart is announcing three big hires today. Former Google and Twitter executive Peter Greenberger is joining as VP of business development. Former Civis Analytics survey scientist Masahiko (Masa) Aida will be VP of analytics, while longtime Democratic strategist Sean Sweeney will be a senior partner.
  • Justin Kintz joined Peloton as its first head of government affairs and public policy. Kintz was an early employee at Uber and also handled public affairs duties for Orbitz and others.


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