November 4, 2018

Alt-tech: Far-right safe spaces online

By Patrik Hermansson

The alt-right affiliated and Neo-nazi website the Daily Stormer calls itself “The Most Censored Publication in History”. While this is overly hyperbolic it has faced significant opposition. The website’s domain name was seized by Google and its hosting provider, GoDaddy, kicked the site off its servers after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017. The site has subsequently moved between hosting providers and has had 14 domain names seized, effectively limiting it access to one of the most basic infrastructure services that makes up the internet.

The Daily Stormer is not the only example of deplatforming carried out towards alt-right affiliated figures and organizations. Chuck Johnson was one of the first high profile alt-right figures to be permanently banned from Twitter after he made violent threats towards civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson in May 2015. In 2017, after the events in Charlottesville, that Twitter banned large numbers of accounts and revised its policies regarding hate speech.

The bans have limited parts of the movements ability to reach their audience in the same way as before and made certain actors less relevant. Because, while the origin of the alt-right has accurately been assigned to the blogosphere and image boards such as 4chan, mainstream social media platforms are essential for the movements mainstream recognition and continue to be the way it disseminates information, attracts new supporters, as well as acting as the key arena on which it conducts its activism.

Considering that one of the most important tactics of the alt-right is trolling and the use of coordinated hate campaigns as a way of attracting the mainstream media’s attention, in order to inflate its influence and normalize its ideas, denial of this attention can be an effective way to combat them. However, the lack of a consistent approach between platforms has made the effect weaker than it could have been. At the time of writing the influential video blogger Millennial Woes is banned from Twitter but not YouTube, Facebook has banned Richard Spencer and Counter-Currents, while Twitter has not.

Despite this shortcoming, the alt-right has increasingly found that the internet is no longer the safe haven it once was. Groups and figures associated with the alt-right and the wider far-right are regularly denied access to social media platforms, payment providers, direct communication platforms, basic internet infrastructure, even dating platforms. Consequently, the movement has been forced to find solace on other platforms, or create their own.

Alt-tech

“We need parallel everything. I do not want to ever have to spend a single dollar at a non-movement business”, Pax Dickinson wrote on his now banned Twitter account in June 2017. Dickinson would the same month launch Counter.Fund, a fundraising platform with the ambition to fund political action against “Marxist political correctness and the globalist progressive Left”.

This became the start of what would two months later become part of a submovement within the alt-right dubbed “The Free Speech Tech Alliance”, or just “alt-tech” for short, in an article penned by the founders of Gab, an alt-right associated Twitter clone. The article paints a picture of an increasingly hostile climate to far-right ideas online, at the time exemplified by the recent firing of Google employee James Damore for a manifesto against the company’s efforts to close the gender pay gap. “The time is now for patriots and free thinkers inside and outside of Silicon Valley to organize, communicate in a safe way, and start building”, the article declares.

Gab

Probably the best and most successful example of one of the new platform is Gab, an independently developed platform that positions itself as a competitor to Twitter, started in 2016 by Andrew Torba, a 25-year-old entrepreneur from Pennsylvania. The platform quickly gained traction in the alt-right as a Twitter alternative after a number of high-profile activists were banned in the wake of Charlottesville and policy changes on the platform in December 2017. The platform early on made overtures to the alt-right by making a green frog head its logo but it did not admit direct support for the movement, instead positioning itself in opposition to “big tech” and for freedom of speech.

However, the platform became the focus of media attention after it was revealed that the killer of eleven Jewish people at the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburgh, on 28 October 2018 was active on the site. He had posted white supremacist and antisemitic content and glorified violent far-right groups on the platform, without being suspended.

This is unsurprising considering that Torba and the Gab have, time and time again, expressed its support for the American far-right and alt-right causes. He appeared on Alex Jones’s Infowars after Jones’s ban from many of the mainstream social media platforms in August 2018. In the interview he argued that they “need to stop playing on the lefts playgrounds”, as opposed to its mainstream competitors. Gab has however continued to claim that the platform is “for everyone”. Sometimes referring to the single anonymous user described as a “progressive Canadian rapper” as proof of its dedication to diversity of opinion.

Even if this progressive Canadian rapper actually exists, it’s probably better described as the exception that proves the rule than a reflection of the average user on the platform. The free for all attitude to racism and other forms of hate unsurprisingly makes the atmosphere on the platform toxic.

“Free speech” platforms

The, at least superficial, dedication to an absolutist interpretation of free speech is something Gab shares with all platforms in the alt-tech world. They market themselves in opposition to the mainstream platforms, which they argue, assert varying degrees of illegitimate censorship on their movement. Twitter clone Gab uses the motto “people and free speech first”, while reddit clone Voat for example uses the more subtle tag-line: “Have your say”.

Evidently, the bans by mainstream platforms have fed into the narrative of free speech and the Alternative Right being a suppressed movement. These platforms continue to mobilise the common narrative among the alt-right, portraying itself as an underdog in populist attempt to gain sympathy for its cause and to make itself appear edgier and thereby more attractive to future supporters and current ones. Framing it in this way, moving over to the new platforms becomes an act of resistance itself, likely the only competitive advantage the alternative platforms can get the likes of Facebook and Twitter.

The honesty of this rhetoric can of course be questioned. Richard Spencer has himself stated that the alt-right does not actually support freedom of speech and although there is no reason to question the ideological conviction of the founders of most of these platforms, similar to the mainstream platforms, nearly all of the larger initiatives have some sort of profit motives meaning that statements such as those of Gab’s founder of running a platform “for the people” should be taken with a grain of salt. Like any for-profitable business portraying an ethical outside, these platforms capitalize on the free speech narrative in addition to existing fears of data mining by mainstream social medias.

The limited successes that the alt-tech movement has had is in part the result of mopping up those high profile alt-right individuals who have been banned from mainstream platforms. This has in turn attracted their supporters onto these new platforms. Daily Stormer’s Andrew Anglin for example is one of the most active and high-profile accounts on Gab which remains his only social media platform.

However, overall it’s been few and far between the successes stories of alternative platforms. Out of the multiple projects detailed in this article, only a fraction of them are still active and even less can be called successful. While Gab has continued to grow its users remain quite inactive. A study by Zannettou et al. showed that only 20 percent of the users on the social network change their profile description and 43 percent have posted zero posts.

While Gab has grow significantly, it still suffers alt-right ghettoization, the platform simply doesn’t have enough users to spark interesting conversations. In other words, the platform is still too alternative. It provides a place for users kicked off Twitter, a safe-haven of sorts, but the possibility of unmoderated speech is in itself not enough of a reason for some to engage. It’s clear that even ardent supporters of the Alternative Right do not necessarily want to move to alternative platforms, they do it because they have to. Thus both Gab and similarly video sharing website BitChute, in essence act as backup platforms to the mainstream platforms.

Taking control of the infrastructure

However, one of the largest issues facing “alt-tech” is not exclusive to its social media platforms. A well-constructed platform is useless if the domain name gets seized or the hosting shut down. This is the fate suffered by the Daily Stormer in 2017. Similarly, a funding platform can’t function without the capability to process payments which often rely on mainstream options such as PayPal.

Therefore, the question of control over the infrastructural services that the modern web relies on has increasingly become a central question to the alt-tech movement. This is highlighted by the fact that the alt-right is a movement wrought by ideological differences with a history of members attacking each other. A thread on the Daily Stormer’s forum highlights these worries. In it, a user expresses concern about the newly launched Freezoxee social network which advertises itself as a free-speech platform but has a policy to block “authoritarian ideologies”. The user writes that they “have to conclude that the real reason he is starting a new site is so he can be the one making the ultimate decisions on who to ban.”

Many has therefore started to argue for the need, not for parallel platforms, but a decentralisation of internet infrastructure. The decentralisation philosophy is the opposite, a radical idea of doing away with any concentrated point of power (or failure). Anarchist and libertarian programmers and internet activist have long built platforms that enable a decentralised internet outside of the control of either Government or big corporations. Technologies that makes it difficult or impossible to monitor internet usage and censor content, this has caught the interest of the alt-right. Video sharing platform BitChute is one of the first platforms to make use of these technologies.

Bannings and the victim narrative

The trend of the Alternative Right creating its own platforms is consequence of, and likely an unavoidable side effect of, to the bans of associated accounts on various mainstream platforms. While the project of creating separate platforms has largely been met with failure, this should not be taken as an indication that this will continue to be the case. It is a relatively tech savvy movement and separate movements striving for a more open and decentralised internet will undoubtedly be taken advantage of by the Alternative Right.

To exclude far-right accounts form mainstream platforms remain an important tactic. It limits their ability to reach and radicalise potential supporters, their influence over societal debate and the damage done to other users on those platforms and in the offline world.

At the same time, the bans highlights an important issue of our time, that of the dependency on private companies as platforms for public debate. Putting the arenas for public debate at the whims of a relatively small number of private institutions is something that many are concerned about. The Alternative Right has tapped into this concern. This begs the question of how bans should be carried out in order not to amplify the narrative of suppression, which might have become an increasingly source of important in-group definition for the conglomerate movement, it reaches across the divide between the racial nationalist alt-right and the cultural nationalist alt-light. Furthermore, it has proven to reach outside of the Alternative Right itself. The far right figurehead Tommy Robinson for example has received almost unprecedented support from the movement as well as establishments politicians and regular people. It is therefore vital to strive to make bans as consistent as possible but also to examine the effect of bans and how to do them right, not just for the individual platforms but for the wider network and movement. The inconsistent application of terms of use has undoubtedly created a feeling of arbitrariness to bans that can attract attention and help fa-right figures present themselves as martyrs.

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