New social networks offer refuge to the extreme right

Philip Anderson doesn’t like social media interfering with what he posts online. His conservative posts have gotten him banned from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Two years ago, Anderson organized a “free speech” protest against big tech companies. An opposing protester broke his teeth.

Ironically, Anderson himself, who is black, was repulsed by some of the things he saw on Gab, a social media platform that has become popular with supporters of former President Donald Trump. You have seen Nazi images, racist slurs, and other extreme content that goes far beyond what is allowed on major social media platforms.

“If you want Gab to succeed, then something has to be done,” Anderson wrote in a recent Gab post. “They are destroying Gab and driving away all the influencers who would grow the platform.”

The responses were predictable: more Nazi imagery and vulgar racial slurs. “Go back to Africa,” wrote a woman with a swastika on her profile.

A year after Trump was banned by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, a host of new platforms have lured conservatives with promises of a safe haven free from perceived censorship. While these fledgling platforms are mounting ideological competition against their mainstream counterparts, they have also become havens for disinformation and hate. Some experts worry that they will fuel extremism and calls for violence, even if they never replicate the success of the major social networks.

App analytics firm SensorTower estimates that Parler’s app has been downloaded around 11.3 million times worldwide on the Google and Apple app stores, while Gettr has reached around 6.5 million. That growth has been uneven. Parler launched in August 2018, but didn’t start to recover until 2020. It had the most monthly installs in November 2020, when it reached 5.6 million.

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

“If far-right platforms are becoming a place to coordinate illegal activities, for example, the storming of the Capitol, this is a major problem,” he said, referring to the violent and deadly uprising on January 6, 2021.

Falsehoods about the 2020 election fueled the attack on Capitol Hill. Research shows that far-right groups are taking advantage of so-called COVID-19 conspiracy theories to expand their audience.

While Facebook and Twitter cater to a diverse general audience, far-right platforms cater to a smaller portion of the population. The lax or non-existent moderation they advertise can also create “greenhouse” environments or sounding boards where participants feed off each other and where spam, hate speech and harmful misinformation flourish.

Gab launched in 2016 and now claims to have 15 million monthly visitors, although that number could not be independently verified. The service says it saw a big spike in subscriptions after the Jan. 6, 2021, riots, which prompted Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to crack down on Trump and others they said incited violence.

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

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

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The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the rights of free expression and action, considered essential for a democratic government. These rights include freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion.

It’s easy to find offensive content on Gab. A search turns up usernames with racial epithets, as well as anti-Semitic rants, neo-Nazi fantasies, and homophobic rants.

Want to search for members of far-right groups like the Proud Boys? They are in Gab. There is also the Georgia congresswoman banned from Twitter after 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 Associated Press that he envisions Gab one day being “the backbone of consumer freedom of expression on the Internet” and rivaling Facebook and Google.

Gettr, a newer network, is looking for a slightly more moderate product. Led by former top Trump adviser Jason Miller, Gettr launched in July and now has 4.5 million users. While the platform is currently dominated by conservative voices, Miller said it is open to all viewpoints.

The site prohibits racial and religious epithets and violent threats. However, a quick search reveals a user whose name includes a word offensive to black people, as well as pro-Nazi content. “Hitler had some very good points,” one post reads.

Gettr’s growing user base in Brazil includes President Jair Bolsonaro, who has been cited by Facebook for violating the platform’s rules regarding misinformation about COVID-19 and the use of fake accounts.

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

Another popular platform among Trump supporters is Telegram, which has a large user base globally. Trump has said he plans to launch his own social media platform.

There is no indication that far-right users have abandoned Facebook or Twitter en masse. Users can keep their old Facebook account to stay connected with friends while using Telegram or Parler for uncontrolled content.

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

Anderson, who is a supporter of the Texas Trump Organization, said he doesn’t know why he was kicked off Facebook and Twitter. He was outside the Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021, attack and has supported the extremist group Proud Boys. Twitter declined to comment publicly on Anderson. Facebook did not respond to messages left by the AP seeking comment.

While Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have taken steps to remove extremist material, Cirone said some groups still manage to circumvent measures to moderate content. And as Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed in leaked internal documents last year, the company has had trouble moderating content in languages ​​other than English.

Content moderation also has limits.

“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 directly plays into the far-right talking point that big tech is censoring speech and the liberal elite is forcing everyone into so-called ‘cancel culture.'”

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