Fringe groups splinter online after Facebook and Twitter bans

  • >> Sheera Frenkel, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-01-12 10:36:13 BdST

bdnews24
President Donald Trump addresses supporters near the Washington Monument in Washington on Wednesday, Jan 6, 2021. The New York Times

On the Telegram messaging app, there were calls for armed marches on state capitols and the offices of tech companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter, starting on Jan 16.

On Gab, a social media network, flyers were posted about a rally in Washington, DC Attendees were advised to “come armed at your personal discretion.” The date: Jan 17.

On the 4chan messaging board, a call went up for a “Million Militia March.” The date: Jan 20.

In the days since rioters stormed Capitol Hill, fringe groups like armed militias, QAnon conspiracy theorists and far-right supporters of President Donald Trump have vowed to continue their fight in hundreds of conversations on a range of internet platforms.

Some of the organisers have moved to encrypted messaging apps like Telegram and Signal, which cannot be as easily monitored as social media platforms.

Social media has played a crucial role in the support of Trump since he announced his intention to run for president five years ago. And the rioters who attacked the Capitol last week did much of their planning in the open on sites like Facebook, Twitter and Parler, a lesser-known platform that had become popular in right-wing circles in recent months.

But after many groups were banned from mainstream social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, the groups have been relegated to half a dozen apps and platforms to organise their next steps. Parler was also effectively taken offline Monday when Amazon — following Google and Apple’s moves to drop Parler from their app stores — said it would no longer host the service in its data centres.

Adding to the muddle, when Twitter and Facebook kicked Trump off their platforms last week, they made it harder for organisers to rally around a singular voice. The result is an unexpected side effect of the expulsions from mainstream social media platforms: Attempts at disruption could be harder to predict and could stretch for days — and not just in Washington, DC.

On Monday, an internal Federal Bureau of Investigation bulletin said that armed protests were being planned for all 50 state capitols beginning Jan 16, according to ABC News. Researchers watching the planning around those protests said there had already been detailed discussions of potential violence.

“There are going to be a lot of different protests, organised on different platforms, with different intention. But the opportunity for violence is very real,” said Marc-André Argentino, a researcher who studies the far right. “These protests are a pile of dry sticks, and all it is going to take is a spark.”

Just hours after rioters were cleared from the Capitol on Wednesday, there was already discussion about what would happen next on Parler and Gab, another social-media platform that has become popular with the far right.

Trump was expected to take his megaphone to the platforms, and tens of thousands joined those sites expecting him to land there. But by Monday night, Parler was mostly offline. Gab had also become largely unusable, as a flood of new users and downloads appeared to crush the site, making it impossible to search for, or post, new items.

Some groups have moved to smaller sites, like MeWe and CloutHub, as well as fringe messaging boards.

“There is a massive exodus that is happening, and we are really seeing people scatter across different sites as they look for a home,” said Argentino. “Different groups have settled in different places.”

On Telegram, where members of the Proud Boys and other militia groups host popular channels, there have been calls for people to organise for marches on state capitol buildings Saturday. On one Telegram channel, which has more than 20,000 followers, addresses were posted for those buildings, as well as the addresses for tech companies, including Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Google.

Members of the Boogaloo movement, another far-right group, have also organised on Telegram and Signal for rallies Sunday. On 4chan and other messaging groups flyers were posted calling for another march on Washington, DC on Jan 20. In comments under those posts, people have voiced support for targeting various news organisations like The New York Times and CNN.

Andrew Torba, chief executive of Gab, said: “As we have communicated to our partners in law enforcement, we have adopted a heightened security posture in the lead-up to the inauguration and are ready to respond quickly to any request law enforcement may make of us during the period.”

A spokesman for Telegram said, “Our terms of service expressly forbid public calls to violence. We carefully examine all incoming reports and will be monitoring the situation closely.”

Signal did not respond to a request for comment.

The planning has included discussions of what type of weapons people can legally carry in different states, and advising one another on how to transport and conceal weapons while in transit across state lines.

“Trust your friends,” reads one comment on a Telegram group popular among the far right, which advised not staying in hotels or taking commercial flights to the sites of the protests. “The police are not with us.”

A coalition of seven militia groups also released a statement on their own site over the weekend, saying they would “do whatever it takes to prevent Biden from becoming president.”

The scattered attempts to coordinate next steps appeared to be confusing for many of Trump’s supporters, who called on the president to tell his followers what should happen next.

In the comments underneath one flyer, which featured the Statue of Liberty on a red background, instructions were given by different people to gather at state capitols on noon on Jan 17, 19 and 20. In comments left Sunday, people asked one another who was behind the event and how they could find more information about it.

“I’d like to come to this, but want to know, does our president want us there?” asked one person. “Awaiting instructions.”

As confusion mounted, some militia leaders began to advise their members to stay home this week. On one Telegram channel, talk turned to whether a large presence by the National Guard and law enforcement would make any protest unwise.

“Stay home and live to fight another day?” asked one person. Another commented that his advice was for militia members to “lay low,” stock up on food and supplies, and bide their time.

c.2021 The New York Times Company