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Inside the US Capitol Riots

The role of alternative social networks in escalating violence

Promoted as outlets for “free speech,” alternative social networks have become a breeding ground for hate, often used in the coordination of violent activities, both on- and offline. This is a summary of an ActiveFence report that dives into these networks’ roles in the escalation of events that led to the US Capitol Riots on January 6, 2021. Please download the complete report below for a thorough analysis.

In the weeks since the January 6th attack on the US Capitol building, one question has been looming on public minds: how didn’t anyone see this coming? One of the answers to that question lies in alternative social networks. Driven by heavy moderation on mainstream social networks, alternative networks have grown from niche platforms serving only the extreme far-right, to highly popular, effective means of spreading extremist messaging. Users who have been blocked or banned from popular social networks still seek ways to disseminate their messaging and turn to alternative social networks like Gab, Parler, MeWe and others, to do so.

In fact, as more mainstream platforms take action against accounts that violate policies, so grows the popularity of alternative social networks. This, in combination with dramatic political events and general social unrest, led to huge surges of traffic to alternative social networks starting in November 2020 and peaking in the first two weeks of January 2021.


Flyer promoting platform migration, shared on an alt-right Telegram group

Alarmingly, communication happening on alternative social networks is rarely limited to those platforms alone. Alternative networks essentially limit group communication to those who have already migrated into them, and groups that seek to grow their following and generate significant impact are constantly attempting to reach new audiences on mainstream social networks. As such, understanding what happens on alternative social networks is not just of interest to those seeking to stop offline activities, it is also in the interest of mainstream social networks who wish to keep their platforms clean of hate speech and incitement to violence. 

graph depicting traffic into alternative social network sites

Global website traffic to 25 alternative social networks, based on ActiveFence analysis of SimilarWeb data.

A Barrage of Networks

Famous for being endorsed by Donald Trump, one of the more popular alternative networks – Parler, has recently been under attack by mainstream platforms, including its removal from Amazon’s web hosting services. However, this appears to just be the tip of the iceberg – in the last year, Parler has only received 13% of the traffic into the alternative social networks tracked by ActiveFence, rising to 20% in December. This means that while Parler is among the top platforms, it is certainly not the only channel for extremist discourse – as new platforms continue to emerge on an ongoing basis.

Extremists now have a variety of platforms to turn to, and they are often active across multiple networks – with larger alternative platforms offering a wider channel for distribution, while smaller platforms allow greater freedom to express their most extreme thoughts. This report will cover a range of these platforms, some larger, more veteran networks like Rumble and BitChute, others just recently established, like the Phoenix Social Network.

Hate and violence are main themes on alternative social networks

What Happens on Alternative Social Networks

The core audience for most alternative social networks is alt-right, extremist groups, and dangerous conspiracy theory movements. Often, these platforms actively target these groups, encouraging them to leave mainstream platforms and use unmoderated platforms. This is the case with the QAnon movement, which is actively targeted by the alternative network Wimkin.

Groups that are active on alternative social platforms generally disseminate narratives surrounding hate and disinformation, and often utilize these platforms to attempt at organizing both on mainstream platforms and offline.

  • Promoting Violence: Among the narratives recently promoted on various alternative social networks are those that target Democrats, mainstream social media, and the LGBTQ community. Additionally, recent campaigns have called for violence against former Vice President Mike Pence, for his lack of support for Donald Trump’s claims against the election results.
  • Disinformation: Given the policies most alternative social networks have in place against fact-checking, they are often used by groups that create and disseminate disinformation. Specifically, these platforms have recently been a fertile ground for those seeking to promote election disinformation and anti-vaccination ideologies. These narratives have been significant contributors to the feelings of anger and distrust we have seen in America and the world over the past year.
  • Impacting Mainstream Platforms:  Aware that alternative social networks will only reach those already on the networks, many communities that organize on these platforms often attempt to recruit new members by spreading their “truth” on mainstream networks. Given that many of them have been blocked by mainstream social networks, they often seek guides and advice on how to get back on, including the use of sockpuppet accounts.
  • Organizing Offline: In addition to impacting online platforms and generating harmful narratives, these platforms are often used by dangerous organizations to plan their offline activities – including the riots at the US Capitol on January 6th.

What’s Next

Despite efforts to maintain order in the US Capitol and across the country, it appears that these alternative social networks will continue to be used to incite hate and violent protests in the upcoming days, weeks, and months. While some posts specifically call out events to attend, others incite hatred and violence. ActiveFence continues to monitor these activities and alert authorities about imminent calls for violence.

Conclusion

Over the past three years, alternative social networks have grown at an alarming rate, and have had a major part in the planning and execution of the January 6th attacks on the US Capitol. Driven by a need to communicate with like-minded individuals and spread their beliefs, users who have been blocked from mainstream networks often find themselves migrating to alternative platforms that allow uncensored, unmoderated communication. This offering allows groups that have been deemed violent or dangerous by the mainstream to spread disinformation and hate, and even organize offline violence. In order to stay ahead of these dangerous movements and stop violence before it happens, it is crucial for online platforms, social networks, and law enforcement to keep a vigilant eye on these platforms. ActiveFence monitors dangerous organizations across all platforms, both mainstream and alternative, alerting companies and law enforcement of any impending dangers.

For more details and examples, download the complete whitepaper.

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