Alt-Tech Platforms Cultivate Disinformation And Extremism
Rantt’s Luke Huizenga went undercover, joined alt-tech platforms, and documented what he saw. Due to the nature of certain content in this article, some sources have been left anonymous in order to avoid spreading further hate or expose individual identities.
Amid bans and QAnon purges, there has been an exodus of far-right conservatives from larger social media platforms to newer “alt-tech” sites. The name “Alt-tech” is self-explanatory: these sites promote themselves as alternatives to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other mainstream labels. The “Big Tech” has, in the words of the far-right, “censored” offensive and sometimes dangerous posts. These fleeing conservatives dubiously argue that the constitutional right to freedom of speech contradicts these companies’ decision to remove such content. Recently, they have found a haven in several places where there is no concern about such scrutiny.
Aside from the hate and disinformation, there is a distinct demonization of Democrats and the left across each platform. This goes beyond simply a larger presence of conservative ideals than liberals’. Rather, there is an active and loud attack on anything contrary to specific preferences. It bears noting that the amount of anti-Democrat posts far eclipses that of pro-Republican posts.
Gab, Telegram, MeWe, and BitChute are each unique in certain ways, but they are the same in that they all encourage their users to say almost anything without fear of retribution. In the name of “free speech”, dangerous and hateful material is allowed–and even expected–to spread rapidly. This presentation of the content permitted on their platforms will evidence just how harmful such an attitude can be. Especially in light of the January 6 pro-Trump insurrection and the increased threat of radical right terrorism, these sites raise concerns of increased radicalization.
Gab: The Next Parler
Although it’s not a particularly new platform, Gab, first launched in 2016, has recently become more mainstream, gaining millions of users in the month of January alone. Founder and CEO Andrew Torba heralds Gab as “the single most resilient and battle-hardened social media company in the world.” Gab has been marketed heavily towards the disgruntled far-right upset with their more extreme posts being removed from larger platforms.
Gab saw significant growth after Donald Trump was banned from numerous social media sites, prompting much of his base to leave as well. The fall of Parler also led many more to Gab as an alternative. The site has thrived off of this audience, with its most prominent users consistently praising the right and excoriating the left.
Due to Torba’s discouragement of moderation, Gab has enabled a large amount of hateful content to flourish. Anti-Semitism and neo-Nazi propaganda have taken a firm hold in the form of Gab groups and the connected video-sharing platform, Gab TV. There is an extensive variety of material, be it individual memes, indoctrinating kids’ cartoons (yes, kids’ cartoons), conspiracy theorists, revisionist documentaries, or dangerous organizations.
One Gab group posted an image of Hitler (wearing a MAGA hat) captioned “THE ONLY WAY TO MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN”. Another post mourned how Jews had brainwashed white women into marrying “filthy N****s”. Over on Gab TV, David Duke (former grand wizard of the KKK) explains a Jewish plot for “White genocide” while others try to prove that the Holocaust is a story written by Jews for “massive profits.”
However, this isn’t a particularly new phenomenon–there have been Nazis on Gab for years. Despite some minor efforts to address individual cases, Torba has had no long-term success in staving off extremists, and it appears that he has no intention of changing the way things are. Even Gab’s Terms of Service reinforce this laissez-faire approach to banning hate. Under the Content Standards section it reads:
“Although our Content Standards, following the First Amendment, do not proscribe offensive speech, we strongly encourage you to ensure that your User Contributions are cordial and civil. The foundation of a free society requires people to peacefully settle their differences through dialogue and debate. It is our view that the responsible exercise of one’s free speech rights is its own reward and the most well-respected online publishers tend to be the ones who behave the most civilly.”
No concrete description of what “offensive speech” merits punishment exists in the TOS. Given that Gab is simply “encouraging” its users to behave, there isn’t any real investment in protecting those being targeted.
Because of its massive growth and lack of supervision, Gab is set to replace Parler, should the platform not resurface, as the staple of conservative “uncensored” social media. Given Gab’s attitude towards hate speech and the quality of moderation hold steady, it will likely also become just as dangerous as Parler, playing host to insurgents ready to take to the streets and fight. Time will tell if any legal action forces Torba and his site to make a meaningful difference in their regulation.
MeWe: The “Anti-Facebook”
Originally called Sgrouples, MeWe was founded by Mark Weinstein in 2012. Like Gab, though, the site has only now entered the mainstream. MeWe was created in a direct rebuke to Facebook’s abuse of personal data. In all other functions as a social media platform, though, MeWe is very similar to Facebook.
From an ethical standpoint, Weinstein believes dissolving privacy and banning content–censorship” in his own words–goes against the Constitution itself. However, Weinstein has long held that he disapproves of “anything goes” sites. When confronted, he points to MeWe’s Terms of Service, which bar users from posting hateful and violent content.
Despite these restrictions, Weinstein’s philosophy has resulted in a loosened moderation of what users can say on MeWe. His approach to online free speech has not come without its consequences. After Joe Biden won the presidential election, angry Trump supporters gathered on MeWe to organize the infamous “Stop the Steal” protests across the country. QAnon and militia groups have also been discovered amassing on the platform.
Most of the groups remained up until they were identified by Trust and Safety Team. Many offenders have been weeded out, but I was able to find multiple “Stop the Steal” and QAnon groups in minutes. Posts spreading conspiracy theories about military insurrection and fictional stories about children being massacred are easily accessible.
Currently, MeWe’s most widespread affliction is a plethora of anti-vaccine–and even worse, anti-coronavirus vaccine content. Numerous pages and accounts exist promoting lies about pandemic safety, steering users to visit anti-vax sites that they deem “reliable”. Certain groups are dedicated specifically to collecting COVID-19 vaccine “injury”–and even death–stories in an attempt to dissuade everyone from taking a vaccine. These groups are furthering junk science that will inevitably put people’s lives at risk and MeWe is doing nothing to stop it.
Unlike the other problems it has faced, the anti-vax movement on MeWe still appears to be largely unaddressed. Weinstein acknowledged its presence in a lengthy recent post regarding what users were allowed to share. He says that having different viewpoints encourages conversation, including “medicine” and “health” as two specific examples. By legitimizing anti-vax culture, MeWe has no responsibility to monitor it. Weinstein says, “It is not the job of a social media company to censor those conversations.”
Telegram: Messenger for Nazis
Telegram stands out from the other three platforms in its ability for instant, private communication. Gab may play to host neo-Nazi activists, but only Telegram allows them to share invitations and propaganda without being tracked or taken down–as mentioned above, Gab has occasionally banned Nazis in the past and its private chat is likely unsafe for groups to talk openly.
The privacy that Telegram brings, while at face value admirable, has resulted in a wide array of neo-Nazi and white supremacist crowds congregating on its platform to get in touch under the radar. Indeed, organizations that find it difficult to meet on typical social networks have flourished on Telegram. Some communities are more active than others, but the simplicity of it all has enabled these groups to be more active.
Real groups dedicated to spreading Nazi ideals exist on Telegram. To that end, there is a particular strategy that many of these organizations rely on for enlisting new members and appealing to a larger audience than simply open racists. This is seen all over Telegram, but it must be explained in order to be understood.
Many neo-Nazi groups have created for themselves an attitude that goes beyond ideals of xenophobia and nationalism. They choose to promote fitness–specifically male fitness–and encourage followers to learn street fighting. As a matter of fact, some groups make this a rule, part of the criteria of joining is regular boxing, wrestling, weight lifting, and the like.
The groups then use this lifestyle as a kind of camouflage for their core Nazi beliefs. Openly, they can tout their groups as peak-fitness and self-defense enthusiasts, taking hikes and hosting sports competitions. In reality, they train to fight as a means of extremist activism. These groups anticipate conflict in their marches and public gatherings and instead of avoiding it, intentionally prepare to do battle in the streets.
There are numerous channels on Telegram with this exact format. At first glance, they appear to simply encourage fitness and physical strength. There are videos and images encouraging members to practice their fighting and fitness routines. Reading more carefully through the chat logs tells a much different story.
Some of the channels are more subtle in their show of allegiance, focusing primarily on the athleticism within the movement, while still giving nationalism vocal support. Other groups are more explicit, sending each other images from their activist adventures, assaulting protestors, gathering for their own marches, and individual group get-togethers. They provide propaganda for members to spread across the internet or outside, preferably where many people would regularly see it. Several channels have also shared links to neo-Nazi websites. There is a wide variety in these sites:
- A former message board and a recruiting platform for the infamous Atomwaffen Division, a particularly violent group that was officially disbanded in March 2020. Due to the near-inaccessibility of these sites and the AWD’s announcement nearly a year ago, it’s likely this Telegram channel has no real connection to the group and is simply trying to find more ways to spread propaganda.
- An Australian group’s recruiting site providing philosophical statements and collecting information from people wanting to apply. This is one of the most active neo-Nazi sites found on Telegram. The channel itself is also quite large, with nearly fifteen-hundred subscribers and growing.
- A podcast-sharing site with a podcast hosted by two infamous neo-Nazis, Robert Rundo and Denis Nikitin. Robert Rundo is an American who founded the Rise Above Movement (R.A.M.), which presents itself as a group focused on street fighting, fitness, and embraces a philosophy of defending white heritage from the “destructive cultural influences” propagated by foreigners, Muslims, and Jews. Denis Nikitin is the founder of White Rex, a Russian clothing brand that sells MMA-style outfits, often with white supremacist and Nazi imagery emblazoned on them. Nikitin is a fighter himself, being a major figure in the European far-right MMA community. White Rex regularly hosts tournaments featuring other neo-Nazi fight groups.
- A newer site Rundo and Nikitin’s podcast is promoting. Its goal is to pump out media that shares nationalistic ideals to the larger public. It’s also directly connected with another neo-Nazi group with similar goals. Rundo and Nikitin’s site was found across Telegram more often than the other three, although the link to their podcast was also quite widely shared.
According to Telegram’s Terms of Service, users must not “promote violence on publicly viewable Telegram channels”. The simple fact is that numerous viewable channels openly encourage violence without any fear of exposure. The company’s clear lack of effort to enforce its own TOS has made hateful users comfortable–if not eager–in sharing their most violent thoughts.
Telegram experienced massive growth in January, with millions of people joining for the first time in response to a fear of Big Tech. If it expects to become a mainstream social media platform, it will need to take responsibility for the significant presence of extremism. To continue ignoring it is dangerous and unethical.
BitChute: The Alt-Right’s YouTube
Of these four platforms, BitChute is easily the most explicit in its permission of extreme content. It is best described as a mash-up of the previous three sites but without the minimal moderation. The homepage alone (which shares BitChute’s most popular content), lists videos promoting QAnon, denying the existence of gas chambers in Auschwitz, and claiming Coronavirus vaccines will kill millions.
Like similar alt-tech founders, Ray Vahey, who released his site in January 2017, created BitChute as a reaction to “increased levels of censorship by the large social media platforms”. His creation has gone beyond avoiding “censorship” and instead become a breeding ground for hatred.
One of BitChute’s biggest draws is that it is well-known for supporting extremist and far-right “martyrs”, those banned or “censored” on larger media sites. Alex Jones and the Infowars channel are one such example, flourishing with over 120,000 subscribers. One of Jones’s most popular videos claimed to own footage of Hunter Biden raping young girls. It has received nearly fifty thousand views.
This follows the trend of shock-inducing conspiracy theories that have grown up on the site as well. Any and every kind of wild theory has found a home in BitChute. This has, of course, created a kind of playground for QAnon communities to gather and share their “research” without worrying about it being taken down.
The darker theories that have resulted from this are, predictably, the racist and anti-Semitic ones. And they’re running rampant. Videos predicting a Jewish “white genocide” and economic takeover are all over BitChute. Holocaust denial and plots to exterminate Jews in America aren’t unusual. For a site whose Community Guidelines encourage “respect and decency”, it stretches the definition by allowing videos to celebrate the death of former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg because of her Jewish heritage.
Vahey has publicly acknowledged the significant presence of hate speech on his platform, but he says it is still permitted, based on his philosophy of free speech. Blocking anything from the internet, in his eyes, is still censorship. The Community Guidelines make an exception for pornography and illegal activity. Suffice to say, the pornography ban is not enforced. Illegal activity, if not explicitly present, is often encouraged.
There are video-sharing sites more horrific and illicit than BitChute. That is undeniable. However, the difference is that those sites aren’t becoming mainstream. Those sites are still frequented almost entirely by a very specific crowd they cater to. BitChute, meanwhile, is opening its doors to many disgruntled conservatives who are unlikely to spread wild conspiracy theories and fantasize about massacring Jews. However, as they grow more comfortable with the site, they will inevitably become more accepting of the content that is so readily available. Even if they don’t touch the offensive material, it will soon be normalized in their minds–and that is an incredibly worrisome prospect.
The Rantt Rundown
Ultimately, these platforms all tell the same story: social media with little to no moderation enables people to do and say whatever they want, opening the door for all kinds of offensive, misinformed, and dangerous content. Whatever stipulations companies may give, people still end up getting away with a lot, and, based on the enthusiasm of said companies’ responses, users have little incentive to stop breaking rules.
Alt-tech platforms are at a crossroads: either they can admit that they’re going to allow this content to spread so as to avoid “censorship”, or they can choose to increase moderation such that they actually enforce their written guidelines. Otherwise, they will simply remain like this, purporting to keep people accountable and within their rights, but in reality enabling hate and disinformation to thrive.