Gab instead of Twitter, MeWe to replace Facebook, Telegram for messaging, and Discord for insiders: banned from mainstream platforms, American conspiracy and white supremacist movements, displayed supporters of Donald Trump, have withdrawn to more confidential networks and more difficult to regulate.
“The most extreme Trump supporters were already well established on alternative platforms“says Nick Backovic, a researcher at Logically.AI, a company specializing in digital disinformation.”Facebook and Twitter have been very slow to respond, allowing influencers to rebuild their audiences with almost no interruption“.
After the January 6 riots in Washington – when hundreds of Donald Trump supporters violently invaded the seat of the US Parliament – major social networks cracked down on the organizations involved, such as the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, and the Proud Boys .
Facebook has thus intensified the purges against the armed movements: nearly 900 were evicted in all. Twitter, for its part, permanently banned the former president, and deleted 70,000 accounts affiliated with QAnon, a nebula whose followers were convinced, or still are, that it will save the world from corrupt elites and pedophiles.
“It’s a strategy that works“said Jim Steyer, president of the Common Sense Media Association.”Watch Trump without Twitter: he lost his megaphone, his messages are no longer amplified“.
But millions of more or less fervent extremists and conspirators refuse to resign themselves, according to experts, who fear that censorship brings together and unites individuals who are a priori very different.
“At QAnon, you have armed militants, traditional Republicans, stay-at-home moms, your yoga teacher … People who still had a certain distance from Nazi or supremacist groups. But there, they begin to merge into the same communities. They have nowhere else to go“, observes Alex Goldenberg of the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI), a research center also specializing in digital disinformation.
Disappointed followers rally under other banners, including the anti-vaccine movement. On Telegram encrypted messaging, groups of tens of thousands of Donald Trump supporters are relaying false rumors about “depopulation vaccines“, between two insults against Joe Biden or the migrants.
These vehement exchanges in little-known corners of the web could be similar, in the eyes of the authorities, to the conversations and diatribes that take place in bars and family meals.
But if the exclusion of large social networks has limited the capacity of large-scale recruitment of extremist movements, fire is smoldering.
At the end of January, a group of demonstrators, for example, interrupted vaccinations against Covid-19 in a stadium in Los Angeles, one of the largest dedicated sites in the country.
The need to regulate alternative networks, however, comes up against moral and practical constraints. The limits of freedom of expression are the subject of a heated debate in the United States.
Talking, a sort of conservative Facebook, was left out for several weeks, banned from the web by Google, Apple and Amazon because it violated their rules on moderation of content that incites violence. He came back online in mid-February.
Gab and MeWe, who also resemble Facebook, saw their popularity explode in the wake of January 6. According to Alex Goldenberg, they are mainly used by users who need to express their frustration.
“There was no pandemic in 2020. The flu has been used to destroy the economy and steal the election (of Donald Trump)“, assures a user of Gab, ILoveJesusChrist123, commenting on a press release from the former president, relayed by the platform.
Telegram is more conducive to taking action, via private groups, protected by encryption. Firearms aficionados can be found on the MyMilitia.com forum (“My Militia“).
But where the founders of Gab do not hide their affinities with QAnon, MeWe and Telegram have assured that they will do without the association with the conspirators. Both have made moderation efforts, but they do not have the necessary resources.
“These movements are like pollution. They gained power and influence because they operated freely on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube“said Emerson Brooking, an extremists and disinformation specialist at the Atlantic Council, a think tank.
It therefore recommends a kind of pooling of moderation teams and technologies between competing social networks.
The government should also intervene, says John Farmer of NCRI: “it must treat networks like water and electricity: public goods subject to regulation“.
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