A year after Donald Trump’s purge by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, ‘Alt-Tech’ offers refuge to the far right

Philip Anderson is not a fan of online content moderation. His conservative posts got him kicked off Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Two years ago, Anderson organized a “free speech” protest against big tech companies. A counter-protester broke his teeth.

But even Anderson was repelled by some of the things he saw on Gab, a social media platform that has become popular with supporters of former President Donald Trump. It included Nazi imagery, racial slurs, and other extreme content that goes well beyond anything allowed on major social media platforms.

“If you want Gab to be successful, something has to be done,” Anderson, who is black, wrote in a recent post by Gab. “They destroy Gab and scare away all the influential people who would make the platform grow.”

The responses were predictable – more Nazi imagery and crude racist slurs. “Go back to Africa,” wrote a woman with a swastika in her profile.

A year after Trump was banned from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, a rowdy assortment of new platforms has lured conservatives with the promise of a safe haven free from perceived censorship. While these fledgling platforms stage some ideological competition against their mainstream counterparts, they have also become havens for misinformation and hate. Some experts fear they will fuel extremism and calls for violence even if they never replicate the success of mainstream sites.

App analytics firm SensorTower estimates that Parler’s app has had around 11.3 million downloads globally on the Google and Apple app stores, while Gettr has reached around 6.5 million. This growth has been uneven. Talking launched in August 2018, but it only started picking up in 2020. It saw the most monthly installs in November 2020, when it hit 5.6 million.

While new platforms can be good for consumer choice, they pose problems if they spread misinformation or hate speech, said Alexandra Cirone, a Cornell University professor who studies the effect of misinformation on the government.

“If far-right platforms become a venue for coordinating illegal activity — for example, the Capitol insurrection — that’s a significant issue,” she said.

Lies about the 2020 election fueled the deadly attack on the US Capitol last year, while research shows far-right groups are exploiting COVID-19 conspiracy theories to broaden their audiences.

While Facebook and Twitter serve a diverse general audience, far-right platforms cater to a smaller segment of the population. The loose or non-existent moderation they advertise can also create greenhouse environments where participants reinforce each other and where spam, hate speech and harmful misinformation flourish.

Gab was launched in 2016 and now claims to have 15 million monthly visitors, although this number could not be independently verified. The service says it saw a huge jump in registrations after the Jan. 6, 2021 riot, which prompted Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to crack down on Trump and others they say incited violence.

By comparison, Facebook has 2.9 billion monthly users and 211 million people use Twitter daily.

“We tolerate ‘offensive’ but legal speech,” site creator Andrew Torba recently wrote in an email to Gab subscribers. “We believe that a moderation policy that adheres to the First Amendment, thereby allowing offensive content to rise to the surface, is a valuable and necessary utility to society.”

Offensive content is easy to find on Gab. A search reveals usernames containing racial epithets, as well as anti-Semitic screeds, neo-Nazi fantasies and homophobic rants.

Members of far-right groups like the Proud Boys? They are on Gab. The same goes for the Georgia MP who took to Twitter for spreading misinformation about COVID-19. Steve Bannon, banned from Twitter for suggesting the beheading of Dr Anthony Fauci, has 72,000 followers on Gab.

Torba wrote in an email to the AP that he envisions Gab will one day be “the backbone of the consumer free speech internet” and rival Facebook and Google.

Gettr, which arrived more recently, is aiming for a slightly more subdued product. Led by former senior Trump adviser Jason Miller, Gettr launched in July and now has 4.5 million users. While the site is now dominated by conservative voices, Miller said he welcomes all views.

The site prohibits racial and religious epithets and violent threats. Nonetheless, a quick search reveals a user whose name includes the N-word as well as pro-Nazi content.

“Hitler had some pretty damn good points,” one article read.

Gettr’s growing user base in Brazil includes President Jair Bolsonaro, who was cited by Facebook for breaking rules regarding COVID-19 misinformation and using fake accounts.

“I think there’s a lot of room for all of our platforms,” ​​Miller said when asked about competing with other new sites. “It’s more about us taking market share from Facebook and Twitter than competing with us.”

Another mainstream platform popular with Trump supporters is Telegram, which has a large user base around the world. Trump said he plans to launch his own social media platform.

There is no evidence that far-right users left Facebook or Twitter in droves. Users can keep their old Facebook account to keep in touch with their friends while using Telegram or Talk for unmoderated content.

“So now social media companies are effectively competing for users’ screen time,” said Cornell professor Cirone.

Anderson, the Texas Trump supporter, said he didn’t know why he was kicked off Facebook and Twitter. He was outside the Capitol during the attack on January 6, 2021 and supported the Proud Boys. Twitter declined to comment publicly on Anderson; Facebook did not respond to messages seeking comment.

While Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have taken steps to remove extremist material, Cirone said some groups still elude moderation. And as Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed in leaked internal documents last year, the company has struggled to moderate non-English language content.

There are also limits to content moderation.

“Content will travel and ideas will evolve. Content moderation has political consequences,” said Wayne Weiai Xu, a disinformation and social media expert at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “It plays right into the far-right talking point that big tech is censoring speech and the liberal elite is imposing the so-called ‘cancel culture’ on everyone.”

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