It’s been a clarion call of the political right — “big tech” is biased toward liberals and the political left and advances their agenda, all at the expense of conservatives.
Former President Donald Trump and his allies have long complained about it and suggested conservatives were being censored, allegations social media companies pushed back on.
Nowhere was that disconnect more prominently displayed recently than in the failed siege at the Capitol on Jan. 6, some experts who spoke with ABC News said.
The right-wing corners of the internet, which include some of Trump’s most ardent supporters, white supremacists and militia members, have harnessed technology to amplify their ideology, these experts said.
Since the days of internet chat rooms and forums like 4chan and 8chan (rebranded as 8kun), the far-right has exploited advances in technology to get around bans from one platform or another.
In the wake of the Capitol siege, Trump and his extreme allies were pushed off mainstream social media networks, one of the principal driving forces behind the Make America Great Again movement. So too were white nationalists and other extremist, violent facets of the right wing. Companies that have banned Trump and right-wing accounts and apps including Facebook, Apple, Google and Reddit, issued some form of the same statement as to the reason for their actions — their terms of service forbid inciting violence.
But the experts interviewed by ABC News said that these right-wing factions have been able to persist online by staying a step ahead.
They say decentralized platforms, apps and sympathetic hosting providers have become part of the right-wing’s technology arsenal. Even Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey dropped hints about helping to create a decentralized social media platform in a series of recent tweets. In a tweet on Jan. 13, Dorsey said, “We are trying to do our part by funding an initiative around an open decentralized standard for social media.”
From the darkest corners of the internet
The Tea Party emerged in 2009 with an agenda to push back then President Barack Obama’s policies and promote its libertarian-conservative agenda of small government and less taxes. “Tea Party patriots” used Facebook, Twitter and online conservative forums like Free Republic to organize rallies around the country. Some political pundits consider the Tea Party to be the genesis of the MAGA movement — and the start of a fissure between moderate conservatives and hard-liners.
Trump, already a TV celebrity, took to those same platforms, ramping up followers in the millions. To date, the official Tea Party Facebook page has 1.3 million followers, and Trump’s page has 35 million.
In recent years, the internet and some of its darkest reaches connected mostly older Trump supporters with younger denizens of online right-wing platforms including militia members, white supremacists and those in the tech-oriented “alt-right.”
As seen in the harrowing images and video from the Capitol melee, rioters ranged in age from 20-somethings to Baby Boomers — and these different age groups, which tended to aggregate in different internet circles, have been converging in common online spaces.
“There’s a lot of Boomer QAnon supporters,” said Emmi Bevensee, data scientist, founder of Rebellious Data LLC and author of the report, “The Decentralized Web of Hate.”
But QAnon has “people from the 8kun and 4chan network who are extremely battle-hardened … and have been running targeted swarm harassment and psy-ops up for many, many years now,” Bevensee said. While there’s no hard data on 4chan or 8kun’s demographics, those sites are generally associated with younger, male users.
In fact, 4chan and 8chan, which used to be underground communities posting and sharing often toxic and hateful content, have made their way to the highest level of U.S. politics, said Bevensee.
Ron Watkins, the former 8chan administrator and current administrator of its successor, the Watkins-owned 8kun, became involved in the unfounded Dominion voting machine fraud conspiracy after he filed an affidavit with Trump advocate and attorney Sidney Powell in the dismissed Georgia voter fraud lawsuit, baselessly speculating that “it may be ‘within the realm of possibility’ for a biased poll worker to fraudulently switch votes, the Washington Post reported.
Conspiracy theories about Dominion were embraced by Trump and his allies and helped fuel the “Stop the Steal” campaign that ended in the Capitol siege.
Forums and online communities aren’t the only technology the far-right have embraced.
Even with the mass banning from traditional social networks, some of the most-followed podcasts are hosted by right-wing influencers. According to podcastsinsight.com, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro has the No. 5 of the Top 100 podcasts listened to on Apple Podcasts, and young conservative activist, Charlie Kirk’s podcast is No. 8. as of January 2021.
During the 2020 presidential debates, the conversations with the most user engagement on Facebook about the debates were on conservative Facebook pages: Fox News, Breitbart and Shapiro’s page, according to data from social media analyzer CrowdTangle, the New York Times reported. A spokesperson for Shapiro emphasized, however, that Shapiro repeatedly refuted claims of widespread election fraud. Shapiro told his audience that former Vice President Pence was not able to stop the certification process in several instances on Twitter and on his podcast encouraged his followers to accept the electoral college representatives and their votes.
Clearly, those on the left side of the political spectrum also use technology to further grassroots movements and to organize rallies. Facebook’s official Black Lives Matter page has over 750,000 followers. Meet-ups and events are posted there regularly. The anti-fascist movement referred to as “antifa” gained prominence after white nationalists rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Yet, there’s no organized antifa group with clearly defined leadership — for instance, there is no verified antifa Facebook page, but there are accounts online that describe themselves as antifa-affiliated; who they actually are is unknown. In June, Twitter suspended the ANTIFA_US account saying it was actually tied to a white nationalist group, Axios reported.
But more pressure is being placed on companies who advertise on conservative media, and as traditional social networks throw more of those voices off their platforms, the right wing, and in particular the most fringe elements including white supremacists, are turning to more sophisticated tech platforms including blockchain and peer-to-peer (P2P) networks — where computers are connected to each other over the internet and share resources. P2P networks allow for decentralized networks and platforms where there is no one controlling or managing entity — essentially, these networks are unregulated — open frontiers for all kinds of content including the most base and hateful.
On the cutting edge of tech
David Golumbia, associate professor of digital studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, and the author of “The Politics of Bitcoin: Software as Right-Wing Extremism,” said he believes the radical right not only utilizes but helps drive technological innovation.
“Sometimes people say pornography drives technological innovation, which is partly true. But I sometimes think that the radical right is way up there,” he said. Golumbia has written on the far-right’s adoption of cryptocurrency and blockchain — a type of database where data is stored in blocks and then chained together. It’s the underlying platform for Bitcoin and used in a decentralized way — no one person or group has control of the platform.
“The whole idea of blockchain was to prevent government from being able to have any say whatsoever about technology,” said Golumbia.
He said some of the most fervent proponents of blockchain-based cryptocurrency including Bitcoin, have been those who “identified strongly with the far right,” a concern also mentioned in a 2019 congressional report.
A report from the Southern Poverty Law Center states that “many on the far-right were early adopters” of digital currency. The SPLC’s website features a list “of some of the most prominent white nationalists and other extremists who accept Bitcoin.”
In December 2020, Laurent Bachelier, a French computer programmer, donated more than $500,000 in Bitcoin to various right-wing causes, before dying by suicide, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Blockchain is a type of P2P technology, but there are others. Some include decentralized messaging apps like Telegram and Signal; and social networks like Minds, Mastodon and Diaspora. Decentralized messaging apps and social networks allow message exchanges and interaction from user to user without any central authority or server.
Conversely, centralized platforms have one governing authority that holds all the platform’s data, transactions and user information. Examples of centralized online platforms include government websites, banking sites and commercial platforms and apps like Facebook, Twitter and Lyft.
Parler, Gab and Discord are not on blockchain but they use bits of some of the same distributed technology, said Golumbia.
While many founders of decentralized platforms including blockchain and P2P have said they are dedicated to the idea of a free and democratized internet, experts like Bevensee and others see evidence of decentralized technology’s increasing use by the extreme far-right.
Evan Henshaw-Plath is the co-founder and CEO of Planetary described as “a humane decentralized social media platform.” Henshaw-Plath, a founding member of Twitter said, “we’ve seen a lot of interest and people moving over from centralized platforms over the last few weeks.” He said the platform has been “overwhelmed by new users.”
For him, open networks are an alternative to “Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, et al” which he likens to “a shopping mall.”
“[They] feel like a public space but in reality it’s a corporate-run space.”
But, “we’re not all interested in becoming a platform or tool for white supremacists and Trump supporters,” Henshaw-Plath said. He said he marched nightly in Portland at Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd was killed, even getting pepper-sprayed.
“I’m not going to spend every night protesting for racial justice and then every day work to build a platform to empower racists.”
Planetary’s terms of service doesn’t allow hate speech or conspiracy theories.
Daryl Davis is an official adviser to decentralized social network Minds. He’s been working with the Mind’s team on de-radicalization methods through open communication and through hosting a weekly podcast at Change.minds.com where he said he has interviewed white supremacists and extremists to “engage in constructive, productive conversation.”
Davis, who is Black, said he thinks banning speech, even hate speech on open internet platforms is problematic.
“A lot of topics are taboo. And there aren’t enough platforms that are willing to deal with [that]. And … people cannot express their views … they tend to build underground, and go to the dark side … and [it] becomes a pressure cooker. And then they explode. So we need something where everybody can talk,” Davis said.
As to banning racist, hate speech, Davis said, “When you ban those things, for some people, it empowers them, it enables them to think … ‘I’m being banned because I’m telling the truth.'”
Yet, despite some progressive founders and advocates’ support for open, decentralized and more ethical internet platforms, Bevensee said “various organizing attempts of white supremacist attacks have already utilized P2P technology to facilitate white supremacist violence.”
For example, the suspect in the 2019 mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, posted on 8chan, according to investigative journalism website Bellingcat.
“When I used to track the Atomwaffen Division which is like this Nazi accelerationist group, they were really actively organizing through Gab,” Bevensee said.
And leading up to the Capitol siege, Bevensee said online users were flagging law enforcement about violent posts related to the Capitol and the Stop the Steal rally. “All these journalists who study the far-right, just started retweeting them with screenshots from Parler from the Donald.wins [website],” Bevensee said. This included posts “from those of just people explicitly planning, like the exact details down to ‘here’s where you can buy zip ties.’ Very specific, very violent things completely in the open. And we have 99.9% of all that data,” said Bevensee.
Countering far-right extremism in technology
Many of the most extreme Trump supporters and the far-right have been silenced by Big Tech. But by no means have they been silenced for good.
Parler has been in the midst of a legal battle with Amazon, which previously provided hosting through Amazon Web Services. After Jan. 6, when evidence came out that Parler users had posted hateful content — loaded with threats of violence and racial slurs Amazon suspended web hosting services to Parler, essentially forcing it offline.
And a judge recently threw out Parler’s plea for reinstatement, finding that Amazon was not obligated to restore its web service, The Associated Press reported.
And these platforms may move more toward P2P technology, according to Bevensee. “It’s not impossible, that Parler will move to … Mastodon,” according to Bevensee.
Mastodon is one of the decentralized social media platforms allowing anyone to set up their own social network and dictate the content and rules for their network. “If they do, that’ll be like … one of the largest uses of peer-to peer social media technology … They’d be federating with Gab” and other like-minded communities, possibly creating a vast online community, Bevensee said.
Such a pivot could exacerbate the far-right’s online activities even as they are banned from various platforms.
“These communities are so agile, they just immediately build the same community with a slightly different name, or even the same name. And even though they lose all their channel subscribers, because of the search indexes, it’s really easy for the channel subscribers to find the new one,” Bevensee said.
How do you stop online activity from promoting propaganda and whipping up the frenzy that resulted in the lawlessness on Capitol Hill? It’s not an easy solution, especially when technology is involved.
Getting lawmakers more tech-savvy is one way. “Senators Elizabeth Warren, Mark Warner, quite a few others” recognize that a change is needed overall with social media networks and online communications but should be thoughtful and nuanced, Golumbia said.
For now, the challenge remains: how to work out a balance between allowing diverse voices online while putting reins on extremist content that has far too often been mobilized into violence.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect the views of Ben Shapiro on the results of the 2020 presidential election.
ABC News’ Catherine Thorbecke, Katherine Faulders and Libby Cathey contributed to this report.