Hate Mail

How Newsletter Platforms Are Abused By Bad Actors

Newsletters can be an excellent way for organizations and clients to stay in touch with one another. However, they are also increasingly being abused for nefarious purposes. ActiveFence has investigated the use of newsletters by a range of bad actors responsible for spreading hate speech and disinformation, and how they use them to remain connected to their followers even after being deplatformed. For our comprehensive analysis – download the complete report below.

Described as America’s leading conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones has a long and controversial career commentating on current events. In 1999, he established InfoWars, a far-right conspiracy theory website that also serves as a platform for his daily radio show, drawing millions of listeners. The show promotes extreme anti-government and anti-globalization rhetoric, conspiracy theories, and other disinformation.

InfoWars’ large following makes its messaging even more dangerous, especially when combined with an impressionable audience. For example, Jones helped promote a claim that school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School and Stoneman Douglas High School were false flag operations, which caused some parents to receive death threats.

Alex Jones and InfoWars had avoided severe disciplinary action for many years, remaining on mainstream services. However, luck ran out in 2018 when several significant platforms banned him almost simultaneously. With fewer entities willing to host him, Jones has had to utilize other methods to remain in contact with his followers.

Newsletter sign up window on the InfoWars website

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Despite numerous bans, Alex Jones has been persistent in keeping his name and his message out there. Following his removal from most major tech platforms, he has resorted to using emails and newsletters to circumvent his ban and update his followers. These newsletters are also a source of disinformation and hate speech. Moreover, Jones includes advertisements for the various products and supplements sold by his online store. Simultaneously portraying himself as the victim of a conspiracy and marketing his newsletter, Alex Jones pleads with his audience: “Don’t let big tech cut you from the truth.”

However, Jones is far from the only conspiracy theorist to utilize this technique to circumvent deplatforming. After being barred from most mainstream platforms, Sean Morgan, a QAnon conspiracy theorist and author of QAnon FAQ, started a newsletter. Morgan uses his newsletter to provide daily updates to his followers about QAnon related news, anti-vaccination theories, and personal updates. He also uses it as a means to solicit donations. The benefit of this technique is that it is a direct line of contact with his audience that is virtually free of censorship, allowing him to say what he could not on other platforms. It also enables Morgan to demonstrate his persistence to his followers.

Other entities abusing newsletter services include far-right extremist groups and individuals, particularly in Europe. With social media platforms taking a stricter stance against their activities, newsletters have provided them with a means to organize and share information. Similarly, sites and networks that spread disinformation online have also turned to this method. While platforms can remove their accounts for spreading fake news, newsletters enable them to send disinformation straight to their audience’s inboxes.

Why Newsletters?

The increasing pervasiveness of hate speech and disinformation on the internet has placed ever-growing pressure on major tech companies and platforms to find solutions. As such, social media giants have become more active in developing trust and safety initiatives. Governments are also experimenting with ways to tackle this problem through legislation. While there are still plenty of bad actors on the internet, including on major platforms, it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to evade censors and remain on these services. As a result, bad actors have had to find alternatives.

Newsletters provide a crucial, uncensored, and direct tool for individuals and organizations to remain in contact with their audience even after deplatforming. Through newsletters, bad actors share knowledge, organize events, and collect donations from supporters. They can also use messages, keywords, and terms typically censored on mainstream platforms. Perhaps most importantly, it is a way to demonstrate their persistence to their followers and maintain their relevance.

What Can Be Done?

Hate speech and disinformation continue to plague digital spaces, and as methods to counter this increase, bad actors are turning to new platforms to share their agenda. Since newsletters are such an effective tool for sharing information, organizing events, and soliciting donations, bad actors exploit these platforms to operate in the open without censorship.

Whether used to spread health disinformation or extremist ideologies, the abuse of newsletters by bad actors is a potential threat to public safety, as well as brand security. In order to keep ahead of this dual-threat, newsletter distribution services must be proactive about confronting this issue.

For more details and examples, download the complete whitepaper.

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