In the wake of the mob attack on Capitol Hill in the United States, and moves by tech companies to limit the availability of apps where far-right groups have gathered, the audience has been forced to move elsewhere, including the shadowy world of encrypted platforms and messaging boards where it is harder to see them and monitor them.
“Social media has been an incredible boon for the movement, in terms of its reach,” said Barbara Perry, the director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University.
Then Donald Trump lost access to his social media accounts, and Parler, the latest popular platform for the conservative movement was removed from the Apple and Google Play stores, and went offline entirely when Amazon dropped its web services.
“The backlash against that … it’s another sign of their victimhood, so they’re actually using that to garner sympathy and support for the movement,” Perry said.
While there’s evidence that “deplatforming” works in some ways, by denying leaders of groups or movements access to mainstream audiences, or limiting their ability to make money off of their projects, it’s too early to tell where the bulk of the audiences will end up.
“It does quell the worst of the worst — we don’t see them, we don’t hear them — and it drives them further to the margins. Now they’ve got to find another alternative that will tolerate their hateful and dangerous speech,” said Perry.
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But, she said, the deeper they go underground, to encoded platforms, the tougher they are to follow for researchers and law enforcement.
The extreme right has for years festered in a variety of places. Certain discussion boards on 4chan, created by Christopher Poole in 2003, now owned by Hiroyuki Nishimura, a Japanese entrepreneur, and 8chan, now rebranded as 8kun, and owned by Ron Watkins — were havens of hate speech.
Facebook is also a hive of misinformation, not just when it came to extremist political views, but on vaccine hesitancy and other conspiracy theories. Twitter, too, has had hordes of anonymous accounts and bots. Both platforms, in the waning days of the Trump administration, moved to cancel conspiracy accounts and bots, prompting a backlash among some right-wingers.
Amarnath Amarasingam, an extremism expert at Queen’s University, who researches radicalization and terrorism, said there are many “Parler refugee” groups that have emerged on the Telegram messaging platform. Based out of Dubai, and founded by Russian entrepreneurs Pavel and Nikolai Durov, Telegram is an instant messaging service, featuring encrypted video calls and has around 500 million monthly users.
While primarily a messaging service, channels can be created for group discussion.
“Depending on what happens with Parler, this may be a temporary holding spot for some of these individuals before they inevitably try to move back to Parler, or even back to more mainstream platforms like Twitter and Facebook,” wrote Amarasingam in an email.
Social media has been an incredible boon for the movement, in terms of its reach
There are other options, too.
Some may move to Gab, a Pennsylvania-based, Twitter-like platform that prides itself on being free-speech-friendly, and was the preferred message board of Pittsburgh synagogue shooter Robert Gregory Bowers. Gab has claimed a 753 per cent increase in traffic since Trump was banned from Twitter.
CloutHub is another similar service. L. Lin Wood, a Trump lawyer, moved from Parler to CloutHub.
Multiple alternatives to mainstream social media exist too, such as Rumble, billed as a YouTube alternative. There are others that could also see influxes of new visitors.
Amarasingam said it’s too early to say what might happen to right-wing conservatives, whether they’ll move back into the mainstream or get “increasingly roped into more hardcore content.”
“It really depends how far-along you (are) on the so-called path of radicalization. Telegram can be a scary place if you’re just accustomed to generic pro-Trump material, so I think some of those people might get spooked by what they find,” he wrote.
The reality of people being radicalized at the fringes — a phenomenon that exists both in Canada and the United States — isn’t just an online phenomenon, Amarasingam cautioned.
“We are seeing a whole host of problems impacting these people, from feelings that white culture is being eroded, to economic anxieties brought on by COVID lockdowns, and so on. Generally, these things require a holistic response, not just deplatforming,” he said.
Canada, like the United States, has an active online extremist movement. “It’s a challenge — we’re in new territory here, this is probably the most active and visible movement we’ve seen since the 1920s KKK, where they were actually part of the mainstream,” said Perry.
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