The past week of Trump-free social media, the apparent demise of Parler, and the mass removal by Twitter and Facebook of far-right QAnon accounts and others spreading falsehoods about the outcome of the presidential election, have become powerful evidence that deplatforming works: By shutting off the spigot of inflammatory disinformation gushing from these conspiracist cesspits, its spread—and the insurrectionist violence it has inspired—has at least appeared to slow down.
However, it has also demonstrated its limitations: Even as extremists have been shut out from the major social media platforms where they did so much of their organizing and recruitment in the past four years, they are migrating to smaller, less restrictive platforms and reconstituting their efforts there—places such as the white nationalist-friendly app Telegram, where the insurrectionary and violent chatter has suddenly spiked since last week’s riot at the Capitol, as Anna Schecter at NBC News reports.
Much of the talk revolves around plans to engage in large-scale violence in Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, particularly a planned “Million Militia March” protest being organized that day.
A common theme running among the discussions is urging would-be protesters to forget about protests at various state capitols around the nation that are being planned simultaneously and to focus their efforts on turning out thousands of armed insurgents in Washington. Some are sharing recipes for making, concealing, and using improvised explosives and homemade guns.
"Do not attend armed protests at state capitols before inauguration! Possible sinister plot hatched by radical left to take away gun rights!" a Telegram far-right chatroom post reads.
One of the problems presented by this migration to more secure platforms is that it becomes harder for law enforcement, journalists, and monitoring organizations to keep tabs on their activities and their plans.
"Now that they forced us off the main platforms it doesn't mean we go away, it just means we are going to go to places they don't see," commented one Telegram user in a channel for refugees from Parler, the right-wing platform that was briefly taken down this week.
An October profile of the extremist channels at Telegram by Tess Owen of Vice revealed how Telegram has become the preferred platform of white nationalists. “Telegram makes a lot of sense for those groups,” she notes. “The app allow users to upload unlimited videos, images, audio clips and other files, and its founder has repeatedly affirmed his commitment to protecting user data from third parties—including governments.”
Some high-profile far-right extremists have announced they intend to make Telegram their main base of operations. Joey Gibson, the founder and leader of the street-brawling Patriot Prayer outfit responsible for a running series of violent protests on the West Coast, recently announced that he was moving his show to Telegram after his website was taken down. “Fascist censorship is ramping up,” he complained.
Channels dedicated to such far-right groups as the Proud Boys and the Parler refugees have seen huge spikes in participants. And the tenor of the discussions has grown increasingly violent and openly extremist. One post discussed how to radicalize Trump supporters into neo-Nazi beliefs.
Other platforms are gaining new customers from the far right as well. QAnon cultists have been shifting their organizing to text message chains. The white nationalist-friendly platform Gab claims it also has seen a significant increase in new users.
The migration makes clear that deplatforming primarily is capable of sidelining extremists, and its most powerful effect is in limiting the ability of extremists to recruit and radicalize vulnerable targets on mass mainstream platforms.
Frank Figliuzzi, a former FBI assistant director, told Schecter that he is concerned the shutdowns of platforms like Parler could be a “double-edged sword.”
"We had all this success with ISIS: We took out their command site but we also took away the ability to see the next lone wolf. We force them into the dark corners of the internet," Figliuzzi said.
As terrorism expert J.M. Berger noted on Twitter, the discussion of deplatforming tends to treat it as a panacea that will solve the problems rather than a tool in the fight that can be applied strategically. “One option is to corral extremists on platforms where they can be tracked but can't reach big audiences,” he wrote. “Periodic soft purges to keep their audiences small, but not so much pressure that they're forced to innovate.”
At best, deplatforming is proving a kind of Band-Aid approach to a deeper systemic cancer within the political landscape. Moreover, it also lets the officials currently holding positions of authority within the system escape culpability for their failures in stopping the spread of far-right extremism, forcing the problem solely into the laps of social media platforms—which took measures this week that have been long overdue regardless.
It is already, for example, a federal crime to share bomb-making recipes on the internet. It’s also a federal crime to advocate the assassinations of public officials or to otherwise threaten them with violence. Yet what began as a few angry voices on the fringes of the internet—and thus easy for law enforcement authorities to ignore—has grown into a massive flood in large part because these laws are only selectively and lightly enforced.
Deplatforming is a blunt instrument. It works best—as we have seen not just with Trump’s ban from Twitter and Facebook, but even earlier with the social media bans that transformed Milo Yiannopoulos from a central figure in the rise of the alt-right to a fringe crank still trying desperately to reach a mass audience from limited platforms—when it removes major media figures spewing disinformation and bigotry from major platforms with which they can reach mass audiences. Cutting off that flow is in fact essential to limiting the spread and recruitment of extremist ideologues.
It works less well when it comes to actually defanging the extremism itself. As we have seen, far-right extremists—whose raging ideologies fuel their determination—have proven extremely ingenious at devising workarounds to the obstacles presented by deplatforming. The smaller platforms also provide a greater expanse for inflaming their extremism to violent levels and then organizing it.
As we have seen over the years, extremist groups become the most dangerous when they are forced into these hidden spaces in large part because monitoring their activities becomes harder, but also because they are more likely to become even more deeply radicalized. Confronting this level of extremism requires the engagement of all levels of society—government, law enforcement, media, communities of faith, even mass culture—in taking the threat seriously and responding appropriately.
This means, first of all, applying the laws already on the books and enforcing them. It becomes a powerful disincentive for sharing bomb-making plans or threatening to hang Nancy Pelosi when the people doing it find themselves behind bars—as federal law dictates—and when the people sharing neo-Nazi belief systems in the hope of recruiting mainstream conservatives are exposed for the terrorists and seditionists they are.
Until that begins to happen, then we are locked into a political landscape where far-right extremists will be organizing to stop inaugurations, execute liberal politicians, commit acts of domestic terrorism, and destroy American democracy, regardless of how shrunken their platforms have become.
Republished with permission from Daily Kos.